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Military Spending Crowds Out Funding for Community Needs

April 11, 2011

By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team

When a friend of mine first committed civil disobedience against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq several years ago, she carried with her a photo of a dear friend who had not long before died of cancer. She had a very personal reason for getting arrested to express her opposition: money that goes into the military could have been used instead to prevent or find a cure for the disease that killed her friend.

I was thinking of her as preparations neared for the first-ever Global Day of Action on Military Spending, the day after the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute released 2010 worldwide military spending statistics. Yet again, the U.S. takes up almost half of the $1630 billion military-spending pie.

Like my friend, many people are imagining what even just a sliver of that pie could buy.

The Congressional Research Service in 2009 put a pricetag of $1 million on sending one solider to Afghanistan for a year. Estimates now run about $1.2 million per soldier. Some residents of Corvallis, Ore., did the math and calculated that reducing the number of troops in Afghanistan by just three soldiers would pay off the city’s projected $3.1 million deficit and ease the threats of cuts to human services. In the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury, peace advocates figured that bringing home one soldier from Afghanistan would be enough to close the gap in the city’s library budget.

I heard those examples while on a phone call the other night with the New Priorities Network, a coalition of groups making these connections between military spending and needs in their local communities.

To see what some trade-offs would be for my own community of Takoma Park, Maryland, I went to the National Priorities Project webpage, where you can input a category from President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget and see what other choices could be made for spending that money. I learned that Takoma Park taxpayers would pay $32.1 million for the Defense Department if that budget passes. The same amount of money over one year could provide low-income healthcare for 12,879 children or 4,110 Head Start slots for children. The funding also could over a year provide 6,444 households with solar-powered electricity or 17,185 households with wind-powered electricity.

Residents of the U.S. aren’t the only ones making such calculations. Christiana Figueres, the United Nations’ top climate official, made the connection between global warming and nations’ security in a speech in Madrid in February. She noted that growing water stress, declining crop yields and damage from extreme storms in some of the world’s poorest countries could set off mass international migration and regional conflicts if left unchecked.

Figueres then said that instead of expanding their weaponry, militaries should spend some of their budgets on reducing carbon emissions and helping poor countries protect themselves from the effects of climate change. She also urged militaries to pursue their historic role as technology innovators, “to become the cutting edge of clean technologies that are urgently needed.”

In the United States, we have a chance, with negotiations beginning on the 2012 federal budget, to urge Congress to make some of those shifts in funding priorities that Figueres and citizens around the country are suggesting.

The Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ website has some brand-new resources on the federal budget. One piece puts federal spending on the military in the context of Catholic Social Teaching and the Sisters’ own commitment to nonviolence, and describes some of the military’s expenditures in relation to other categories of spending in the federal budget, concerns about that spending and efforts to make other budgetary priorities.

We invite you to join us in contacting Congress to support a 2012 budget and a plan for reducing the deficit and debt that, instead of putting the greatest burden on persons who are poor and vulnerable, generates more tax revenue from the wealthiest among us and significantly reduces military spending. We will have an updated message for members of Congress once they return from their Easter recess the first week of May.

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