Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Sequester Hits History

Philip White 

When we think about the budget mess in Washington, it’s easy to focus on how it affects what’s now and what’s next. But what’s often overlooked is how budget cuts impact the study of the past. Or, how those cuts might shape history for current and future generations.

Harry S. Truman's farm home in Grandview, Missouri
In the past year, I’ve spent many a Saturday morning at the Harry S. Truman Museum and Library in Independence, Mo., merrily panning for research gold sifting through umpteen boxes and folders. Thankfully the museum and the researcher’s reading room/library will not be closing.

But as of March 24, Truman’s old white-board home in Independence (which he far preferred to the other White House he lived in, dubbing the latter, “the great white jail”) will be closed on national holidays, Sundays and Mondays. The Noland house across the street, which once belonged to Truman’s cousins, is being shuttered for good. And though visitors can still mosey around the grounds of the family farm in Grandview, Missouri, they’ll no longer be able to tour the house.

Now, it’s no secret that the national debt has spiraled out of control. But whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or anything in between or beyond, it’s not hard to see how such closures of historical sites will adversely impact historians, dent tourism and, most worryingly, deny children a rich learning experience. We hear so often how concerned politicians on both sides of the aisle are concerned about education. And yet they’re willing to pass cuts that prevent young people from learning the lessons of our past, so they can positively influence our future. 

We must do better.


Unknown said...

These types of programs and places could be funded so easily and cheaply, relative to the big ticket items (bank bailouts, surveillance drones). It's just ludicrous.

Philip White said...

Dan, I agree. The amount needed to keep such important historical sites open is tiny. This isn't a Democrat thing or a Republican thing - it's a "do the right thing" err, thing!

Todd Arrington said...

I can attest to the sequester's effect on history. I work for a federal agency that manages historic properties, and we have taken a significant hit. We've had to close on Sundays since federal employees are paid more that day. I will be unable to hire any seasonal help this summer instead of the three seasonals I usually hire for the busy season. We have already cancelled several special events, and more will likely have to go. The other problem with all this is that many people don't understand how the federal system works (which is understandable if you're not living it every day). Therefore, they assume we can simply take money from one area and apply it to others. Unfortunately, we usually can't. Almost 90% of our annual costs are salaries and benefits (a very normal percentage for our agency). Almost all of the rest goes to fixed costs like utilities. Therefore, cutting back on hours and events because of what we can afford to pay our employees is really the only place we can cut. So things like Sunday hours and events that normally incur a great deal of overtime and evening work (which also pays more) have to get cut so we can live within a budget that, in our case, is now about $35,000 less than it was a few weeks ago. So yes, the sequester does have real impacts to history programs, research, events, and interpretation.

Philip White said...

Todd, I am sorry to hear about your experience. It is baffling to me how the DC politicos can justify these cuts when there is such waste and gross overspending in other areas. Perhaps that's just it - they don't justify it.

Unfortunately it's another example of the humanities getting short shrift. If it were math, science and technology programs that were feeling the pinch there would be an uproar, not least because the White House is consistently publicizing improving standards in these areas. But anything concerning English, history, philosophy and the classics is relegated to the "oh well" category.

I wish you all the best as you do continue serving history and the public in this difficult situation.

Todd Arrington said...

Philip, thanks for the kind words. As the cliche goes, it is what it is. We're very used to chronic underfunding anyway, so this is just one more challenge to overcome.