Federal Budget Reflection and Lessons from My Grandparents

I have been trying to write this blog for 3 days now and every time I start to research topics to write about I end up just getting more frustrated with our federal budget system. As I reflect on the federal budget process, I keep on going back to 2 lessons that my grandparents taught me back in 1993 when my brother and I spent the summer with them.

Lesson 1. Don’t spend more than you have.

My grandmother taught me how to budget for things/needs (i.e., snacks at the community pool and my end of the summer shopping session that we had planned) based on the income I earned (i.e., babysitting and allowance received from chores completed). From that point on I knew that you couldn’t plan on spending more than what was brought in (no matter how cute those mary jane shoes were).

There is a line in the Concord Coalition Exercise that I keep on going back to. “The economy continues to improve, and the deficit dropped dramatically to $439 billion in 2015.” What?! That is the deficit, not our debt (which is drastically more). This means that our federal government wants to spend $439 billion than we are going to be bringing in for the year. The next line in the exercise makes me laugh but it isn’t funny. “Yet, the structural problems in the budget remain, and deficits are projected to rise again beginning in 2016.” That increase that the Concord Coalition mentions is projected at just under $600 billion. Something needs to give, which leads me to the second lesson I learned from my grandparents that summer.

Lesson 2. Don’t waste your time on things that don’t work. 

That summer I spent with my grandparents, they got new neighbors with boys around mine and my brothers ages. I had a huge crush on the boy that was a year or 2 older. One day, my brother and I were helping my grandfather with something involving spray paint (I honestly have no idea what we were doing but spray paint was involved). The new neighbor boys came outside and wanted us to play with them. My grandfather told us that I had to finish helping him first. He then gave me the spray paint can and told me to shake the can until it was ready. I asked how to tell if it was ready and he said when the ball inside stopped making noise. So I shook the stupid thing for what seemed like forever. After a few minutes, I complained about it taking too long, he said I wasn’t done because he can still here it. He starts laughing.  I shake, he laughs even harder. My grandmother comes out to take a picture of me shaking this stupid spray paint can. At this point I realize that he is messing with me so I stop. While trying to control the laughter he says that I can go play. I really learned 2 lessons from this but only 1 applies to budgets. 1. Don’t trust my grandpa when boys are around. 2. Don’t waste your time doing something that doesn’t work.

The biggest problem I found from this exercise was that some of the research conducted actually shows that some of these programs that are being kept around do not reach their desired effect. For example, one of the options for the exercise was to cut $12 billion in Department of Education Grants for Elementary and Secondary Education. The data presented to us through the exercise states “An evaluation funded by the Department of Education concluded that programs funded by those grants had no significant impact on the academic achievement, parental involvement, or homework completion of participating students relative to similar students not participating in the program.” This says to me that these programs are not working. Why are we funding things that aren’t doing what they are intended to do?

Take Away

All of our legislators need to spend time with my grandparents.

Just Kidding.

We need our legislators to take their head out of the sand, stop listening and taking things from special interest groups, and look at the data. If it doesn’t work, it gets cut. Maybe by cutting programs, we can find new and creative ways of doing things and actually see improvements to our society. Just because we have always funded or subsidized a program (I’m talking to you Amtrak), doesn’t mean we need to continue to do so. Then maybe by cutting things that don’t work, we can stop spending more than we have and start paying off China.

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7 thoughts on “Federal Budget Reflection and Lessons from My Grandparents

  1. Amber, I love this post! Your Grandpa sounds like a fun man. He definitely taught you a valuable lesson in “don’t waste your time on things that don’t work”. This is absolutely true, but yet our legislators continue to do so anyway. I think a lot of it comes from listening to “public opinion” and trying to please the masses. However, the masses do not always know what works and does not work. You mentioned a very important point that as a data scientist, I definitely take to heart. Trust the data in the situation. I believe that is our best means of assessing whether something is working or not. If the data says no, then let it go!

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  2. Great points and stories Amber! However, I might argue, for example, that although I agree that data suggesting that cutting billions of dollars for education grants because the programs are not working would be very logical, would it be better to develop new education programs that would merit the funding (rather than cut funding altogether)? When reflecting about the coalition exercise, the key element that kept coming to mind was impact. What would the impact be if we cut funding for “X”? So in this case, perhaps the education programs are not working overall, but what if they make a difference for schools in more disadvantaged communities who may use the grants for basic resources? Or what if those students participating in the programs are not the ones who would benefit the most from them and produce a larger increase in academic achievement? These are just questions I wonder about, which tells me that the information and data we have needs to be thoroughly evaluated before making a decision that can having lasting impact for so many people. One lesson I learned is that there is both good and bad to most things, which means in some cases there is hardly a perfect decision. Curious to know what you think.

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    • You bring up some great points. I think this is where proper program management comes into play. As a program manager myself, if the data from my programs shows that something isn’t working, I immediately try and look at the process and try to see if there is an alternative way to go about things in order to improve the outcomes. I think a lot of managers (and I have seen this first hand) get funding and from that point on that is the way things will be done. If program managers are unwilling to change processes when the data says they aren’t meeting their intended purpose, then I fully support cutting funds to that program. I think at that point (and again, I have seen this first hand) people will go back to the drawing board to come up with new, creative, and possibly cheaper ways of creating programs that will actually improve outcomes.

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  3. Hi Amber, that was a great family lesson. You are a good learner and I agree with your point that “look at the data.” Decision makers who based their decisions on data make a better decision than those who based their decisions on theory or anything else. Some of the programs might seem useless, but in reality, they are impactful in the society. And the best way to know that is by looking at the numbers. They won’t lie.

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  4. Amber like the ones above me said, this was a great lesson that can definitely be applied to the federal budget. I am feeling a bit indifferent about the comment of discontinuing funding on programs that do not work, especially in regards to education. I definitely do see your point though, because when looking at the bigger picture, we are essentially just throwing away money. I guess I am a believer that a lot of great ideas take time and sometimes you don’t see the impact these programs could have as quickly as you may want to. Those are just my thoughts though.

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