Most of my career has been spent working in the mental health field, which isn't exactly known for being lucrative. (For reference, it's likely that NASA will put a man on Mars before I will pay off my student loans.) But, it's good, honest work and I have always appreciated the opportunity to serve a group of people who have complex, sometimes painfully difficult needs. It is truly a privilege to be bear witness to the depth and darkness of a person's life, to hear their secrets and their fears, and to be a living testament to the struggles and suffering they have endured.
Most of the counselors I know make in the low to mid $30,000s, and they do this work because it is important, it is rewarding, and it is absolutely necessary. Same with many teachers, social workers, police officers, custodians, bus drivers, and a bajillion other jobs that allow our society to function with civility and help people support their families and pay their bills.
Except for when they can't.
Sadly, most Oklahomans live paycheck-to-paycheck. We get by so long as our paycheck is deposited on time and nothing unexpected pops up. You can pay most of your bills, but you dont' really get to save much. And then sometimes it's a cold winter and your gas bill is really high, or it's a really hot summer and your electricity bill skyrockets. Suddenly, living paycheck-to-paycheck really sucks, and you don't have quite enough to pay all the bills. If you're fortunate enough to have some money tucked away into a savings account, you might dip into it to make ends meet and hope to replace it later on down the road.
Until it's all gone. Then what?
That's where Oklahoma is right now. The state has been living paycheck to paycheck, and it simply doesn't have enough money coming in each month to pay all the bills. In fact, it was announced earlier this week that the state's Rainy Day Fund had been depleted. We had to use the last $240 million in our savings account to make it through the month...and there's still three months left in the fiscal year. The folks at the Capitol think there will be enough revenue in April to put that $240 million back in savings...but what if we they're wrong? What if we don't even have enough revenue to pay bills next month?
I'll tell you what would happen: Agencies will get cut, schools will end the year a few days short, and ultimately Oklahomans will lose their jobs. That's right. It won't be pretty. Just for reference, ending the school year early means that tens of thousands of people get paid less, plus tens of thousands of Oklahoma parents have to scramble to find childcare for a day when their kids should be in school. So, they have to take off of work (if they can), which costs Oklahoma businesses tens of millions of dollars in lost productivity. People will lose wages (or even their actual jobs), and then they'll need to state assistance so that their family doesn't starve. Tell me: How does that help the state move forward?
It doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to keep cutting and cutting and cutting until we're just a poor, demoralized, shell of a state. There's another, better option.
We need to bring in more money.
As I said earlier, the I didn't go into the most lucrative career field, and I've faced my share of personal "budget shortfalls." When things have been tight for me, I immediately reduced my expenses as much as I could. I turned off my cable, I stopped going to the movies, I started taking my lunch. When that wasn't enough, I got a second job...and sometimes a third and a forth. Shortly after grad school I worked as an adjunct professor three days a week, mowed lawns two days a week, and saw counseling clients at my office in the evenings...and I still picked up occasional odd jobs, like painting houses, whenever I could. In order to make ends meet after my son was born, I did contract work for a mental health agency in the evenings and did roofing on weekends in addition to working full-time. The point is, we've cut all we can cut, and now we need to look at ways to increase income. If we want things to improve, we must increase how much money the state takes in. If I can do it, the state can do it.
The state only gets money one way: we pay taxes. Now, nobody wants to pay any more taxes than they absolutely have to, but there's a trade-off. You pay taxes, and in return you [should] get a robust public school system that feeds the minds of our children so they can grow up and be productive members of society, roads and bridges that are safe and don't rattle your car to pieces, clean air and water that is safe to consume, laws and policies that give structure to our society so that individuals are protected and businesses thrive and grow, state parks and museums and cultural events to enjoy.
You get what you pay for.
You know it's true. Pretty much anything worthwhile costs money, and nice stuff costs extra. I don't know about you, but I'm sick of Oklahoma being among the worst at everything. Seriously, we're in the top 10 worst for: Obesity. Education. Children in poverty. No health insurance. Cardiovascular deaths, cancer deaths, drug deaths, premature deaths, Deaths at work. Infant deaths. Suicide. Diabetes. Chlamydia. Frequent mental distress, frequent physical distress. Smoking. Median household income. And, you know, just Overall.
Ugh. Let's stop doing that. Instead, let's fix this.
Running a state isn't cheap, but it is a team effort, and we need all hands on deck for this. We need you to understand that you get what you pay for, which means we're all going to need to pay a little bit more in taxes so we can pay for something better.
We need the richest 3 percent of the population to be willing to be a teensy bit less rich so that their fellow Oklahomans who are incredibly poor can not die.
We need big businesses who are making fat profits to do more to prioritize people over profits, otherwise they won't have any employees or customers.
We need legislators of both parties to stop worrying about being one of the popular kids in that big marble high school, to put people over politics, and to vote for increased revenue.
Together, we can do this. We can fix this.