Billions spent to secure the homeland won’t buy real security

Homeland security dollars don’t make cents: billions spent to secure the homeland won’t buy real security

Koda Borgelt-Mose

A “dirty bomb” explodes in Seattle. Its radioactive fumes travel east and touch down in Chicago, making thousands of people sick. In this scenario, a biological attack has just been conducted by a fictitious Islamic terrorist group. Immediately, it touches off an elaborate drill that involves more than 8,500 participants from 100 federal, state, and local government agencies, along with the American Red Cross and the Canadian government. This simulated attack, conducted in May 2003, cost $16 million drawn from grants made available through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Across the nation, state and local governments are using these grants to conduct terrorist attack drills, outfit police officers with hazmat suits, purchase specialized chemical response vehicles, and stockpile medical vaccines. Earmarked specifically for terrorist attack preparation and response needs, the grants are an attempt to “secure the homeland” after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Last year, $4 billion was committed toward the effort, with billions more slated for 2004.

As discussions over federal and state budgets get underway, now is the time to reexamine financial allocations and government priorities. In states beleaguered by budget deficits, public education, health care, subsidized child care, and other programs have seen huge cuts. The number of those in poverty, without jobs and without health insurance, continues to rise. The current state and federal fiscal crisis, coupled with decreased quality of life, begs the question: Whose security is being protected under new homeland security initiatives?

Securing the Homeland

On orders from President Bush, nearly two dozen federal agencies were consolidated in January 2003 to create the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), marking the largest federal reorganization since 1947. Now included within DHS are the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Office of Domestic Preparedness (ODP), organizations that previously provided grants to states for disaster readiness, law enforcement initiatives, and firefighter assistance. Now with DHS disbursing grants, funding priorities have shifted from basic disaster preparedness to terrorism response preparedness. And while federal monies to address human needs appear to be drying up, DHS funds available to states to combat future terrorist attacks have skyrocketed. Between 1999 and 2002, FEMA and ODP grants totaled less than $400 million; in 2003, under DHS, grants totaled to $4.4 billion.

DHS grants have, for the most part, been quickly and eagerly spent by state and local governments. Missouri went so far as to rename its hazardous materials personnel the “homeland security response teams” and last year saw its funding increase from $1.4 million to nearly $59 million. According to Tom Moore of the Missouri Emergency Management Agency, “In order to keep getting the money, we have to have an assessment and then follow-up with a three-year homeland security strategy plan.” With the boost in funding, Missouri went from 6 to 28 teams–enough to cover all areas of the state. The influx of cash allowed the state to purchase things like a $116,000 hazmat response vehicle.

Missouri isn’t the only state suiting up for potential terrorist attacks with newfound federal money. Wyoming, with fewer than 500,000 residents, received DHS grants totaling $17.7 million in 2003. The stare has outfitted its first responders with hazardous materials protective equipment and conducted a statewide drill in October 2003 to assess vulnerabilities should a chemical weapons attack happen. Nebraska officials are gearing up for a similar simulation in November 2004 that will cost half a million of the state’s $15.2 million federal grant. And in Arizona, the government’s $2.8 million grant is being used in Pima County to purchase protective gear and hold trainings for first responders.

Where the Money Is

The pattern of hazmat protective gear purchases and terrorist drills are just about the only things state and local governments are spending their homeland security grants on–not necessarily because they are local concerns, but because that’s how the money has been earmarked. It’s a pattern that doesn’t sit well with everyone. “I have a whole list of” things that if I had the ability to do, we would feel a lot more secure,” according to Joseph R. Pinon, director of homeland security in Miami-Dade County, Florida. For example, Pinon says, getting federal money to hire 20 people to assess potential terror-related threats would be more beneficial than current spending mandates.

But as fiscal year 2004 gets underway, with an estimated $3.5 billion in DHS grant money slated for state distribution, more vocal opposition and tensions related to DHS mandates are arising at various levels of government. Government officials were drawn into debates after a breakdown of DHS state grants was released in mid-2003, revealing that large population states received less federal funds per capita than small population states.

Officials like California Senator Dianne Feinstein weren’t pleased with the fact that Wyoming, with fewer than five residents per square mile, received $35.8 per person, while her state, with a population of 34.5 million, received only $9 per person. In response, Delaware Senator Tom Carper and Maine Senator Susan Collins, whose states have a combined population of just over 2 million, cosponsored a bill that, according to Carper, would make sure a state wasn’t “less safe than its neighbors simply because it has a smaller population.”

State and local homeland security administrators are also pressing DHS for more money and less spending restrictions. Mandates explicitly prohibit DHS funds from going to everyday expenditures, like salary or fire trucks, leaving many areas with terrorism response equipment but no staff to use it. The situation prompted Indiana Counter-Terrorism and Security Council director Clifford Ong to remark: “Without question, the single largest challenge is that we are unable to really hire people to support a lot of the federal equipment we’re being asked to deploy.”

Other Approaches to “Security”?

But perhaps what is most needed is a broader definition of “security” than that used by DHS. While few would argue against the necessity of monies to prevent and minimize damage in the event of a terrorist attack, it is the apparent shift in government priorities away from human security that is a cause for concern.

The narrow federal focus of “homeland security” led the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, the agency charged with hate crime prevention efforts, to push for changes–and succeed. “Right now, ‘homeland security’ only covers the heightened police powers used to ferret out suspected terrorists,” says Robin Toma, the commission’s executive director. “It needs to be widened to include the security of people who are not terrorists but are hit by the backlash.”

In Los Angeles County, immigrant, South Asian, Muslim, and Arab populations have borne the brunt of the post-9/11 backlash. In the three months following Sept. 11, the county recorded a 1,000-percent increase in hate crimes, compared with the previous year. In response to the wave of attacks, Toma successfully pressed Los Angeles County administrators to fund new anti-hare crime programs, arguing that promoting tolerance and preventing hate crimes was a matter of public security.

The commission is now attempting to draw federal DHS funding, rather than state funding, to further its hate crime and community programs. In order to do this, it will have to get state grant administrators to broaden their understanding of “homeland security” and find a way to package programs to fit into federal mandates for grant spending. Toma says the commission still has much work to do. The ongoing war in Iraq and U.S.-Middle East tensions have led to continuing instances of hate violence in the county, including the February 22, 2003, beating of a 19-year-old Lebanese American student by a group of skinheads who yelled anti-Iraqi and anti-Muslim epithets at him. Los Angeles County’s share of the state DHS grant came to more than $57 million in 2003, and next year’s funding is expected to remain steady, leaving vast resources to potentially fund community programs.

Hazmat for Food

Los Angeles County’s push to use funding to address broader notions of security has yet to catch on. At the same time that DHS is spending unprecedented amounts for the state grant program, states themselves are Facing budget problems so severe they can’t sustain basic social services for their residents.

“Over the past two years, Washington State has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country–rates exceeding the national average,” according to Barbara Flye, executive director of Washington Citizen Action, a Seattle-based nonprofit focusing on economic and health justice for the state. “Washington received over $100 million to fight terrorism, yet people are having trouble putting food on their tables. Food banks can’t keep up with demand for services. Policymakers are unfortunately addressing national security concerns at the expense of basic security for the low-income, elderly, children, and families.”

In 2002 and 2003, 37 states cut a total of more than $37 billion from their budgets, the largest cuts since 1979. Nineteen states recorded negative budget growth in 2003 and are projected to go even further into debt in 2004.

Declining state budgets draft bode well for the increasing numbers of people without jobs and in poverty. Recent census estimates show the number of people below the poverty line rose for the second year in a row. In 2002, one in eight adults nationwide, and one in six children, met federal definitions of poverty–where a family of four earns a combined annual income of less than $18,100. Black Americans, Hispanics of any race, and female-headed households recorded the highest poverty rates, at 24 percent, 22 percent, and 26.5 percent, respectively.

Public education has taken a huge hit under recent economic decline. South Carolina, which received over $20 million in homeland security grants in 2003, has cut more than 1,000 teaching positions statewide, in addition to cuts in nursing, counseling, and assistant principal positions, and will have to make further cuts this coming year. Georgia received DHS grants exceeding $50 million in 2003, but cut nearly $138 million from its 2004 education budget and has another proposed cut of $273 million for 2005.

The threat of future terrorist attacks may be real, but so too are the growing needs of low-income Americans most affected by economic decline. For the growing number of Americans who can’t afford to put food on their table and pay monthly bills, and without access to basic health care, jobs that provide for themselves and their families, and quality education, real security will be a long time coming. State grants from the Department of Homeland Security and related counter-terrorism measures have fallen short of filling basic needs and continue to divert needed energy and resources from where security is most lacking: in immigrant, low-income, and communities of color.

Koda Borgelt-Mose is a research associate at the Applied Research Center.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Color Lines Magazine

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