President's Letter 2010

"This piece of rudeness was more than Alice could bear: she got up in great disgust, and walked off..." (From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)

In her wanders through Wonderland, Alice had the good sense to walk away from the Mad Hatter and his kooky friends, who were talking nonsense and drinking tea around a great table in the middle of the woods.

Like Alice, we must resist the temptation of engaging in mindless debates that, in the end, get us nowhere and leave us frustrated. There's nothing silly about the challenges facing Americans in 2011. The situation is dire.

As the Great Recession slowly subsides, its terrible aftermath becomes more and more apparent: nearly 9 percent of the general population remains stubbornly unemployed; nonprofit organizations strain to provide needed services despite reduced revenues and increased demand; and municipal, county and state governments grapple with enormous deficits.

Locally, the Dyson Foundation sees (and feels) these negative consequences every day. In 2009, we awarded more grants than ever before to established nonprofits providing critical "safety net" services for Dutchess County and Mid-Hudson Valley residents. We recognize our responsibility to join with other philanthropic institutions, caring corporations, and individuals to help our communities get back on their collective feet.

But, to address this tide of trouble facing our nation, it is clear that we need more than any one sector can provide. We need private, corporate, individual, and government resources all contributing equally if we are to restore our nation to some semblance of order.

But the winds in Washington DC have shifted in response to a backlash of voters who have come to believe that government spending—all government spending—is inherently wasteful.

And yet with every broad-brushed effort by our elected officials to block funding, someone somewhere is consigned to languish without the support they may desperately need. In some cases it's food, medical treatment, education or child care, but make no mistake, most government spending isn't wasteful at all—it brings essential assistance to someone.

Some would have us believe that government spending is some sort of selfish indulgence we can no longer afford. To the contrary, government spending is essential in virtually every corner of our lives from repairing highways to providing security in the air to making sure the food we eat is safe.

In their zeal to protect us from the Big Government bogeyman, vocal proponents of this new movement seem unable to separate good investments from bad ones, and sound programs from lousy ones. They would rather hack with a meat cleaver than slice with a scalpel.

There is certainly nothing wrong with striving for wise distribution of government funds. We should demand nothing less. But when platitudes replace wisdom and balance during the budget process, we all suffer. We worry that these righteous new hackers of "all government spending" will, in their quest for cuts, carve away more than just fat and end up separating us from a limb, an ear, or a vital organ.

Much like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects of the post Depression '30s, the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka Stimulus) represented a triage aimed at saving a dying patient. It injected federal funds into every corner of America in an effort to keep people employed while investing in sorely-needed infrastructure improvements. Once banking systems were re-established and the stimulus plan took root, our failing economy stabilized and then slowly began to improve.

The Hudson Valley received more than $92 million in Stimulus funding for transportation infrastructure projects that had been languishing on local "to do" lists for years. It paid for many needed road and bridge repair projects throughout the region, such as the upcoming reconstruction of the Hoffman Street Bridge in the City of Poughkeepsie and the building of a new Park and Ride commuter lot in the Town of Rhinebeck. That translated into local jobs and improvements that wouldn't have materialized otherwise.

But what many don't realize is how Stimulus funding positively impacted other areas of the Hudson Valley economy, helping nonprofits and local governments provide essential services and keeping property taxes lower than they would have been. For instance, nearly $1.5 million in Stimulus funding went to provide direct support for health care clinics in Orange County. In Ulster County, the Rural Ulster Preservation Co. of Kingston used $1 million in stimulus funding to create a local Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-housing program, extremely important in the wake of the dramatic rise in foreclosures. In Dutchess, Astor Services for Children & Families used $1.35 million to expand its important Head Start programs to serve more at risk children. And Hudson Valley communities saw an injection of nearly $5 million in new Community-Oriented Policing (COPS) funding that helped hire new police officers at a time when small cities like Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, and Kingston need them but can't afford them.

In order to move forward, we must resist extreme viewpoints. The enormous deficits we've incurred in pulling ourselves back from the abyss must now be addressed with prudent fiscal management and, yes, reduced spending. But we should always weigh spending and investment decisions on their individual merits, not with sweeping generalizations. The cries to cut ALL government spending and to NEVER increase taxes are exaggerated and unrealistic.

It makes no sense to cut federal programs that provide essential services or to delay sound investments while real extravagances go untouched. As 2011 began, "Pledge to America" cost cutting proposals included: nearly $4.5 billion in cuts to Veterans Affairs Department's health program budget; a $747 million cut in the Women and Infant Children (WIC) nutrition program; $1.47 billion in cuts to employment and training programs; along with significant reductions in Head Start funding, the Environmental Protection Agency, and border security measures. This hit list goes on and on, in many cases, defying reason.

At the same time, tax provisions that undeniably favor the wealthy continue —like the $5 million estate tax exemption or resumption of Bush-era tax cuts for families making more than $250,000 per year—while costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.

These provisions remain sacrosanct because the leaders of this new movement believe they are fomenting some sort of revolution by opposing any and all taxation. They have more faith in corporations, banks, and millionaires to cure the nation's ills than the government. That's despite all evidence to the contrary and without regard for the fact they are simply allowing the rich to become richer while the gap between the haves and the have-nots becomes a chasm.

As we slowly stumble out of this colossal global recession, we are confronted with the realization that there are many, many more of our neighbors struggling just to keep their heads above water. Exaggerated partisan politics will not save them. We must all work together in a smart, concerted, and caring way to address their needs. Government's role in this rescue effort remains critical.

Robert R. Dyson

August, 2011