Potemkin Village Safety Net

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Legend has it that when Catherine the Great visited the Crimea in 1787, Russian minister Grigory Potyomkin ordered fake settlements built along her route. He sought to please the Empress by obscuring the true nature of the bleak lands she ruled. Now, “Potemkin Village” refers to any impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable reality.

I thought about such false fronts when I walked past my town hall the other day. There, on the lawn, was this year’s Art House installation, part of a fundraiser by a nonprofit serving the homeless. Local artists are given house-like structures on which to work their creative magic. The Art Houses are displayed in public areas, then auctioned off. Last year, the project raised more than $300,000 for those in desperate need. The playhouse-sized homes offered shelter, beauty, and a powerful reminder that everyone is part of our community.

This year, the Art Houses are very different. The new model is a curved, waist-high façade instead of an enclosed shelter. You can stand or hide behind it, but it offers no real refuge.

The transformation from shelter to façade is the perfect metaphor for what is happening in California and across the country. As the safety net is shredded, we are also destroying our sense of common purpose and decency.

In California alone, the Legislature has already enacted deep cuts. Pink slips have gone out to 20,000 K-12 teachers. College students, who face shrinking enrollment and skyrocketing tuition, cannot get the classes they need. The elimination of funding for childcare and job training makes it even more difficult to move from welfare to work. Cuts to in-home health services jeopardize seniors and the disabled. Thousands of children are at risk of homelessness.

This is just the beginning. Since Republican legislators refuse to budge on their no-taxes-no-matter-what pledge, or even allow citizens to vote on extending current taxes, Californians face another $14 billion in cuts on top of these draconian measures.

Under the guise of economic necessity, the Republican strategy is to underfund, discredit, then dismantle government. It’s a dream come true for Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform who famously declared his goal of shrinking government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Republican legislators, scared of political retribution, have sworn allegiance to Norquist. It doesn’t seem to trouble them that it’s real people—and our future—going down the drain.

The federal budget will further savage the lower and middle classes, especially if congressional Republicans succeed in extracting further cuts in the name of deficit reduction. This, too, is a façade that disguises their true aim. By insisting on preserving tax cuts for the wealthy, which adds $700 billion to the deficit they deplore, Republican hypocrisy is unmasked. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the spending cuts in the budget just approved by House Republicans hit vulnerable Americans the hardest.

 Most vital programs on both the state and federal level have not disappeared altogether—yet. But they have been slashed so severely that in many cases only a façade remains. Meanwhile, legislators who feel they have little choice but to enable this sham get bragging rights for preserving programs that are in actuality too hollowed out to provide sufficient services. The rich and powerful are shielded from the true impact while the less fortunate endure death by a thousand cuts.

This leaves a façade behind which we can stand, a Potemkin village of a caring and just society that offers no real shelter for people who need it the most. We can pretend, but we cannot hide from this disgrace.


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