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Schubart: Catchment Spending

There are three catchment areas for the broken among us: hospitals, public schools, and jails. Healthcare is a third of our state budget, public education another third, and jails cost twice what we spend on higher education.

We must rethink our preventive investments to rein in this staggering cost of remediation. We know the “ounce of prevention” axiom but too often fail to observe it under the pressure of balancing budgets or absent courageous leadership. We must ask vexing questions about whether what we’ve been doing works – whether our investments make us stronger or simply forestall chaos. Only by analyzing and possibly redirecting our current social and economic investments will we lighten the remedial cost and, in time, lower the number of Vermonters needing help.

We must learn to spend ahead of the breakdown with early education and childcare, affordable housing, mental health treatment, nutrition programs, and addiction education and recovery. We must better manage chronic disease at the clinical and home level.
Prevention is our best investment in both healthy communities and economic development. If we invest in family-friendly communities and workplaces, most of us can manage our lives, getting help before we fall prey to serious illness, poverty, addiction, or crime.

We’ll need courageous leadership to reverse our trend of remediating failure. U.S. health care spending grew five percent in twenty fourteen, reaching three trillion dollars or ninety five hundred dollars per person. As a share of the nation's Gross Domestic Product, health spending accounted for eighteen percent. Education and prevention are cheaper.

Public education consumes a third of our budget. But education is no longer just about learning. Our schools have taken on much of the burden of the Agency of Human Services and are called upon to deal with developmental, behavioral, health and nutritional issues. It’s questionable whether this ensures educational success for all or simply overwhelms the system.

We jail offenders at a cost that’s four times the cost of a public college education while alternatives to jail like restorative justice and court diversion show better long-term results, especially for the impulsive young offender, the mentally ill, or the addict.

If we just keep pouring money into the catchments for our social and economic fallout, we’ll collapse under the weight of our own poor investment choices. We need to invest up front and to get ahead of the curve that will eventually upend us.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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