Military spending: we can halve it, peace activists say | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Military spending: we can halve it, peace activists say 

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It's been almost ten years since one million people marched in New York's Central Park in a massive demonstration for a nuclear freeze. Many observers believe the peace movement peaked at that point, as evidenced by the lopsided victories of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who were responsible for huge increases in military spending.

Though outmaneuvered by the Reagan administration, a few dedicated peace activists across the country steadily advanced their cause. Their most recent effort is a 44-page research document called "Reinvest in Illinois: Put Our Federal Tax Dollars to Work." The authors plowed through dozens of city, state, and federal documents and put together an easy-to-read compilation of charts, statistics, and anecdotes that reveal how billions of dollars in military expenditures might have been--and still could be--better spent in Chicago and Illinois. The goal of the report is to stir grass-roots support for a movement to halve military spending over the next five years, and to use the money for health, environmental, industrial, and educational programs.

The authors of the report are a collection of computer wizards and researchers who work for the National Priorities Project, a not-for-profit research group based in Massachusetts. On the local front they have linked up with the Coalition for New Priorities, a network of Chicago unions, neighborhood groups, and left-of-center political activists. "The idea is to tell local states and communities just what the military budget has cost your community in terms of lost funds for housing, education, and the environment," says Bernice Bild, a longtime Chicago activist and cochairman of the coalition. "Just think of all the transit and school crises and cutbacks we might have avoided had this money been better spent."

The Illinois report was issued in early March, in time for the presidential primary. (Similar studies were released in Texas, Tennessee, and other key primary states.) Activists hope their efforts will find a receptive audience among Chicago residents whose neighborhoods have been battered by years of recession and neglect. "We have to express our message in practical terms," says Glenn Bailey, executive director of the Southwest Community Congress, which is a member of the coalition. "There's a lot of police you could hire and potholes you could fix with this money."

The report notes that trillions of federal tax dollars have been spent over the last 40 years to build arms, employ and house soldiers, and dispatch troops throughout the world. Illinois' contribution to that effort now amounts to roughly $15.8 billion a year--equal to more than half the state's budget.

Yet while we kept paying more for the military, the report concludes, the quality of life as measured by access to decent health care, good jobs, affordable housing, and quality education declined."The cold war had a big price tag," says Bild. "And we are still paying it."

According to the report, since 1980 Illinois' share of federal dollars for fire, police, schools, public transit, highway repairs, sewage treatment, and job training have been slashed by nearly $15 billion. Without federal dollars to spur investment, the local economy has been struggling. Since 1980 Illinois has lost 263,000 relatively high paying manufacturing jobs, a 21 percent decline. By 1986 the state's leading employers were the retail and wholesale trade industries.

"Of the ten top job openings with the most growth potential, most are low-skill, low-wage, no-benefits positions," write the authors of the study, who base their claims on statistics from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. "In other words, as the skill requirements of the world's leading industries are rising, Illinois' work force is becoming marginalized and expendable."

The news is bad throughout the state, but Chicago's economy has been especially hard hit. "Since 1980, Chicago has lost 103,000 manufacturing jobs, one third of its manufacturing base," states the report. "Much of the decline reflects national trends, as certain industries contracted all over the country. . . . But problems specific to Chicago compounded the impact of these national trends, with many firms moving out of state or out of the country as management judged Chicago's facilities, infrastructure, and labor force to be unsatisfactory."

The report cites statistics from the city's Economic Development Commission that reveal a dramatic shortage of industrial space in Chicago. "Current industry has a need for 45 million square feet of new industrial space, but only 15 million square feet are currently available," states the report. "Despite strong interest in staying in Chicago because of transportation, access to parts and equipment, 'just-in-time' deliveries, and proximity to customers, companies find little choice but to leave."

The shortage of land is exacerbated by the "hundreds of acres of industrial sites that were severely contaminated by industrial pollution and have been abandoned," the report says. "Without the financing for clean-up costs, the sites remain idle, wasting valuable urban space and contributing to the decline of neighborhoods and property values. Cook County is estimated to have 320 of these sites, but little financing to rehabilitate them into the needed housing and new firms that would return these properties to the tax rolls."

Chicago can't even keep pace with essential street and sidewalk repairs. "A recent update of the Chicago Five-Year Infrastructure Plan found that $342 million of urgent work is required, but the state and city have no resources to fund even a fraction of those needs."

As Glenn Bailey notes, the city is so hard up for cash that it can afford to repair only two blocks per ward every year. "We have streets that were built in the 1930s," he says. "They should be repaired on a timely basis, if for no other reason than safety. We just don't have the money."

The report also notes that the average family's annual health-care costs rose from $2,002 in 1980 to $4,670 in 1991. The cost is projected to rise to $10,423 by 2000. "From 1980 to 1988, health insurance premiums rose at an annual rate of 10.6 percent, twice the rate of wages and inflation!" the report states. "This means that if an individual policy cost $75/month in 1980, that same policy cost $185/month in 1988."

Finally, the report breaks down the military budget, documenting that roughly 78 percent is spent arming other countries or supporting troop installations throughout the world. "The share of tax dollars from Illinois residents that goes to NATO is $8.68 billion per year," says Bild. "That's outrageous. We could hire more police officers, build new schools, fix our streets with that money alone."

To publicize the report, Bild and her allies held a press conference on March 5 that featured former CIA director William Colby. "If anyone should know about our military needs, it would be the former head of the CIA," says Bild. "Colby was director from 1973 to 1976, and he has come to realize that we spend far too much of our budget on the military."

The press conference also featured City Treasurer Miriam Santos and Judith Walker, former Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Human Services. Absent, however, were Daley-administration officials and statewide politicians, which suggests a weakness in the coalition.

Since 1982 peace activists have placed two anti-military-spending advisory initiatives on the citywide ballot, both of which won widespread support. Yet many mainstream local politicians--particularly in the city's outlying white ethnic neighborhoods--have been reluctant to endorse proposals that would radically restructure federal spending policy.

Bailey acknowledges that the activists may be preaching to the choir. But, he says, "I think we have to do a better job of framing the issue. The cold war is over. There's no reason to continue these spending policies. It's a question of priorities--of spending money where it's going to have the best impact on people. Somehow we've got to get that message across."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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