Tue, Jul 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The real US, awash in red ink and blues

By Nicholas Kristof  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Across the US, state and local leaders have been forced to slash more than US$100 billion in spending, laying off thousands of employees, cutting off health insurance for roughly 1 million people, and lowering America's standard of living. Washington is not just aloof from the pain out here in real America, but is making matters worse.

People across America will pay the price for Washington's indifference in lower-quality schools, fewer chances to go to college, less police protection and diminished medical care. The unlucky ones among us, like Douglas Schmidt, will never recover. A 37-year-old epileptic, he depended on drugs that cost US$13 a day and were paid for by the state. State budget cuts meant he lost that benefit, and he ran out of pills in late February.

A week later, he had a severe seizure, his heart stopped, and he suffered permanent brain damage, leaving him in what doctors called a "persistent vegetative state."

"He's very impaired," said his domestic partner, Werth Sargent. "He can't talk. He does not respond to commands. But his eyes do move, and they do constrict when light shines in his pupils. That's on his better days."

The bills so far for treating Schmidt? About half a million dollars, borne by taxpayers.

When Arthur Schlesinger wrote his Age of Roosevelt history books about the Great Depression, his work emphasized that history is not just what Washington decides but also what Main Street endures. While this is no Depression, I came to measure the impact of the fiscal crisis in this little farm town of Yamhill, Oregon, population 970. I chose Yamhill not because it is unusually traumatized but because it is a place I know and love -- it's where I grew up.

Measurable drop

The schools here were not forced to close early, as in nearby Hillsboro, and as one drives through Yamhill on Maple Street, from one end of town to the other past the single flashing yellow light, there aren't any signs of economic distress. Yamhill even has a new business -- a used car lot, with four cars for sale. But still, there is a real, measurable drop in the quality of life here.

The schools in Yamhill have had to lay off teachers, a bitter and divisive process in a small town like this, so classes which averaged 20 students last year will be significantly bigger this year. At the high school, the average class in the fall will have 29 students, and there could be 40 in English classes.

"We'll only have two English teachers in the high school," frets the schools superintendent, Dennis Hickey. "We need at least four. I don't know how we're going to do it."

In the 1970s, Yamhill offered not just Spanish but also French (the teacher didn't really speak French but was a good sport and gamely agreed to teach by staying a couple of chapters ahead of us). Next year, Yamhill will be down to just Spanish, and many would-be Spanish students will be turned away.

"We still have a librarian," Hickey said brightly. "Some schools don't have that any more."

Oregon has been proud of its schools, and it has ranked among the top states in SAT scores. But schools have been hit particularly hard, and universities have been gutted.

"It's very scary," said Mary Stern, a county commissioner.

"I have a four-and-a-half-year-old, and I'm petrified about what might happen in the schools,"she said.

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