As the local consequences of state and national budget woes and worries about war with Iraq loomed large in the national psyche, the New Haven Peace Commission held a public hearing Wednesday night in an effort to connect the two crises.

A PowerPoint presentation of federal budget statistics and testimonies from city government representatives, local activists, and community workers from various organizations sent the message that military spending is on the rise by a variety of indices, and social programs in American cities like New Haven are the victims of parallel budget cuts.

In many ways, the speakers noted, Americans are living a paradox of tremendous collective wealth with concomitant poverty in the form of homelessness, hunger, inadequate healthcare and failing public schools. All but one of the dozen witnesses suggested that these deep-seated issues could be assuaged through the reallocation of discretionary funds from the $400 billion military budget to the country’s urban centers, which face chronic money shortages.

“Now, when employees who have worked in our city for many years are being laid off, over 50 percent of federal funds are devoted to killing machines, preparation for war, and the war economy,” said Al Marder, chairman of the New Haven Peace Commission. “We feel it is imperative for the people of our city to become aware of the consequences of those actions.”

Greg Speeter of the National Priorities Project — a think tank that provides information on federal spending — kicked off the proceedings with a systematic examination of current U.S. military spending in relation to aid to cities, defense spending in other nations, and U.S. military spending over the past two decades. Bar graphs with the military column dwarfing education, welfare and health care portrayed a federal government keenly focused on defense as the number-one priority. Further data asserted that the United States spends about as much money on the military as the rest of the world combined.

Most significant for those in attendance were the alternative uses of the billions of dollars spent, specifically those to be spent in a potential war in the Middle East. Speeter said that if the federal government diverted New Haven taxpayers’ estimated $36.7 million to the projected $100 billion cost of the Iraq invasion back to the city, that money could fund Head Start for 1,768 children, provide health insurance for 4,724 children, and hire 580 teachers.

Speeter urged those in the aldermanic chambers to speak out against President George W. Bush’s proposed budget and tax breaks in hopes of effecting change.

“This is serious money — money that comes out of your pockets,” he said. “I think it’s really exacerbating the wealth gap. It’s just a total injustice.”

Rob Smuts ’01, Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s policy researcher, delivered a prepared statement on the mayor’s behalf stating the administration’s position on the adverse effects of defense spending in lieu of community redevelopment and more localized homeland security measures.

“Instead of massively increasing spending on our military budget, our nation’s leaders should be looking to strengthen the ability of our local communities to ensure our safety,” Smuts said. “For a fraction of the cost of the war in Iraq and the Star Wars missile defense, the federal government could help states, cities and towns overcome the worst fiscal crises since the Second World War.”

Henry Lowendorf, of the Greater New Haven Peace Council, cited a litany of what he deemed unjust presence and intervention in foreign lands, saying money invested in those pursuits could be used to address grave domestic issues. He also urged absent local, state and national legislators to respond to their constituents.

“Right now, and it’s been true for many decades, New Haven is starved for funding,” he said. “People who teach our children, who manage our parks, who make our city run, are being laid off.”

“Half of the funds that our representatives in Washington control are being plowed into the military budget,” Lowendorf said.

The lone dissenting voice in the discussion was Donald Schwartz, a New Haven resident, who only requested to speak after much of the above testimony had already been given. He said he supports the invasion of Iraq.

“We can’t stop fighting a group of Islamists who have publicly stated that anyone who does not believe in their form of Islam should be killed,” he said in an impromptu address that drew visible consternation and even booing from some audience members. “That’s not religion. That’s hate. We must fight it like we fought the Nazis, the communists, and all other forms of barbarianism.”

“We must fight or we’ll all be wearing burkas,” Schwartz said.

Most in attendance seemed to agree with Marder’s concluding remarks.

“War is not an esoteric academic exercise,” he said, looking out into a sympathetic audience from the table of Peace Commission members. “[The war] happens over there but it affects our lives, our children and our futures over here. It’s up to us whether we pay up front or at the end.”

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