Cindi Ross Scoppe

Can money make a difference? Is this a serious question?

mbergen@thestate.com

IF YOU’RE STARVING because you can’t afford food, your problem won’t automatically go away just because someone gives you money.

This is the truth behind the tired but true cliche that you can’t solve a problem simply by throwing money at it.

But your problem, at least in the short term, will be solved if you use that money to buy food.

The key here is the essential word, “simply.” People who skip over that part of the anti-spending mantra are just as dishonest as those who refuse to acknowledge that money by itself is not a panacea.

Certainly there are problems that are impervious to money, no matter how it is spent. Certainly there are some problems that we can’t afford to solve with money. But in many cases, the addition of money well spent makes a tremendous difference.

The converse is equally true: The subtraction of money can cause problems. If you suddenly find yourself without money to buy food or pay the power bill, you will encounter problems — even if you know precisely how money should be spent.

This is basic stuff, stuff we all know and understand and accept — until we start talking about government. But it’s true there too.

If a city slashes its police budget, it will have to reduce the police force, and arrests likely will drop, and crime likely will go up. If that city instead increases its police budget and hires more good officers and assigns them where they are needed, crime likely will drop as the extra police provide a deterrent effect.

Similarly, if you cut state spending on child-welfare workers, the number of children each worker is supposed to protect from abuse and neglect goes up. Now, that might not make a huge difference if the number of cases per worker goes from, say, 24 to 25. But when it goes from 25 to 50, or 100, it will make a difference. More cases will fall through the cracks, because there aren’t enough hours in the day for the case workers to touch all those children. More children we knew were at risk will be injured or killed while their cases languish.

As reporter Jamie Self reminded us in the third installment of The State’s monthly series, “Rebuilding SC,” that’s what happened in South Carolina between 2007 and 2014.

__________

How SC’s leaders have failed South Carolinians

SC’s long-ignored child safety net slowly mends

State’s penny-pinching ways crippled dam safety program

__________

Then in 2014, after a public uproar, we started increasing spending on the state Department of Social Services, and it started hiring more case workers, and the number of cases per worker started dropping. But this was a two-part process: The governor appointed a new DSS director, and told this one to focus on protecting children from abuse and neglect instead of fixating on the jobs side of the agency, to the neglect of child-neglect cases.

If you run your dam-safety program on the cheap, regularly increasing the time between inspections, failing to add more dams to the inspection program as the at-risk population downstream increases, and failing to enforce the law even when you perform the inspections — that takes a lot of time, after all — you’ll probably end up with a lot of dams that aren’t strong enough to hold back the water they’re suppose to hold back.

That’s what South Carolina did for years, as reporter Sammy Fretwell reminded us in an earlier installment of the series: By last year, we had fewer than seven employees working in the program, which is supposed to keep track of 2,400 regulated dams — and figure out which of the 10,000 other dams need to be brought under the regulatory framework. Critics say unrelated duties assigned to those seven staffers meant the program had the equivalent of about one employee. You do the math. No, don’t bother; it simply doesn’t add up.

Still, everything might have been OK if it hadn’t rained. A lot. But it did. And the dams failed, and caused catastrophic flooding and the loss of human lives.

This is where it’s important to remember that the whole reason we have a dam-safety program — much like any public safety program — is to prevent catastrophic flooding and the loss of human life. If it can’t do that, we’d be better off not spending a dime on it and not giving people the false sense of security that comes with having it.

There is a cost — in economic terms and in terms of human potential and freedom — to having taxes that are too high and a nanny government that stifles individual choices.

There is also a cost — in economic terms and in terms of human potential and freedom — to having taxes that are too low to provide basic services and a laissez-faire government that doesn’t even bother to enforce the laws we have on the books.

For a very long time, our Legislature has worried only about the high cost of high taxes and regulation, or of what it imagines are high taxes. As a result, we have suffered from the high cost of too-low taxes and deregulation.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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