Monday, January 17, 2011

During tough times, are rural services the first to go?

Last week’s horrific shootings in Arizona took the lives of six people, including U.S. District Judge John Roll, and left Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition. The nation has paused to ask itself many questions: Was this tragedy politically motivated? Could it have been avoided? Should we be more concerned about the security of our leaders and representatives?

While security is definitely an issue that should be addressed, one question that seems to have escaped the media’s curiosity is how, in the aftermath of the shootings, communities might be affected by the resulting reluctance that government officials will have to “meet and greet” their constituents, as Rep. Giffords had intended to do. For many citizens, these types of events are important ways for disenfranchised communities to make their voices heard and get their questions answered.

The government unease is already apparent, and so far seems to be affecting rural communities first, despite the fact that the shootings took places in the bustling city of Tuscon. Last Wednesday, town officials in the three rural Massachusetts towns of Palmer, Ware and Nantucket, reported that the Social Security Administration has ended a program that sends representatives to meet locally with senior citizens and answer their questions regarding their federal benefits. The outreach programs, which provide a needed service to seniors who are unable to travel long distances to get to the Social Security office themselves, had been helping rural citizens for years. When asked the reason for their sudden cancellation, federal workers cited “security concerns” after the attempted assassination of Rep. Giffords.

Understandably, local residents struggled to see the connection between the tragedy and the senior citizen outreach programs. Although Social Security representatives later claimed that they misspoke, denying that the cancellation of the programs had anything to do with the shootings and was instead due to budget cuts, I wonder whether the shootings at first provided a convenient excuse to cut back on rural services.

Since the beginning of the current recession, cutbacks to social services have been no surprise. We’ve seen school budgets slashed, health services diminished, and rural public transportation privatized or even eliminated. The question is, is this happening to all communities equally, or are rural residents bearing the brunt of the government’s financial stress?

After last week’s social security gaffe in rural Massachusetts, this issue is even more of a concern. Whether it was an honest misunderstanding or not, clearly rural residents have a lot to lose when times get tough.

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