Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cutting government services doesn’t always save money

People are familiar with the concept that cutting corners often ends up costing more money in the long run: this applies to homes, cars, nearly every consumer purchase. But the same holds true with government services, which we purchase with our tax dollars. Many want the cheapest government possible, so the trend in the past few decades has been towards decreasing taxes. That trend combined with the recession beginning in 2008 has led to drastic cuts in government services. Those cuts, however, often lead to problems that cost money to remedy. One of many examples is the problem of violent patients in emergency rooms (Julie Carr Smyth, AP, 8/11/2010). Cash-strapped states have closed state hospitals and addiction programs and cut mental health jobs. As a result, ER visits for drug- and alcohol-related incidents increased from ~1.6 to ~2 million between 2005-8, and incidents of violence in ER rooms jumped from 16,277 to 21,406 between 2006-8. In response, hospitals have had to pay for expensive deterrents such as 24-hour guards, bulletproof glass, installation of "panic buttons", coded ID badges and scanners, and metal detectors. From a sustainability perspective, it makes more sense to invest in prevention of substance abuse and mental illness than in security systems to protect people from addicts and the mentally ill. Treatment and prevention increase social capital and may increase economic capital through cost savings; security and deterrence systems do not increase any form of capital.

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