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Monday March 19, 2001

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More money for the NEA just wishful thinking

By Shaun Clayton

Arizona Daily Wildcat

The National Endowment for the Arts gets about as much priority in national spending budgets as do dance lessons for cats. In other words, the arts in the United States receives little help from our government.

The NEA is currently budgeted for about $100 million a year. Although this may seem like a lot of money, it's really not, considering what the organization takes care of - the NEA is the largest single funder of the nonprofit arts sector in the United States.

Now, compare the costs of what the NEA gets as a budget to what the military gets as a budget. For this year alone, the military budget is $282 billion (only down seven percent from Cold War levels), which averages out to about $1,100 per person, or about the cost of a decent computer.

This year, however, the national arts budget is only costing Americans about 40 cents a person - just a little more than the cost of a postage stamp.

Further, take a look at the money given to fight the "War on Drugs." According to a 1998 report by news anchorman John Stossel, the United States is spending $100 million a day on this "war" alone. If the NEA was budgeted in this fashion, it would have enough funding to last it nearly three-and-a-half centuries.

Of course, it's not bad enough to compare the budget of the NEA to the budgets of other government programs. Sometimes, the government makes mistakes it has to pay for, even if the emergency funding used to correct these mistakes dwarfs what the NEA receives in a year.

An example of one of these mistakes - the three failed launches of satellites from Titan I.V. rockets (i.e. gigantic fireworks) in the nine months before June 1999 totaled $3 billion in losses, an amount which could have funded the NEA for nearly a third of a century.

However, some people think even the little funding given to the NEA is too much. For instance, on July 10, 1997, the House of Representatives, led by Republican-backed efforts, voted 217 to 216 to eliminate all NEA funding. The effort was thwarted narrowly by a veto by then-President Clinton.

Recently, President Bush stated in his budget proposal that he would not reduce funding for the NEA and would keep funding at current levels. Yet, considering Bush also recently completely reversed his campaign promise to keep pollution standards intact, chances are that groups like the NEA will also have to struggle with the Bush administration just to stay afloat.

What is baffling is that the NEA provides so much good to the country. There's the social benefits of the NEA - the arts are not just entertainment, but stimulate urban renewal, improve student learning and make life a heck of a lot more interesting.

There's also the economic benefits of the NEA - more than 1.7 million Americans are employed in the arts, and these jobs create $37 billion in economic activity and return $3.4 billion in income taxes to the federal treasury. That's a pretty good investment for the tiny amount of money put into it.

If the U.S. government expects to maintain high art in society, it's going to have to pay a little more attention - and money - to such organizations as the NEA. And considering how badly the stock market is doing, governmental funding for the arts may be the United States' safest investment.