Virginia Governor Tim Kaine finds himself needing to scale back his preschool proposals and restrict himself to a targeted program for the state’s neediest kids rather than a universal one. This seems like a reasonable response to budgetary realism, but as is usually the case with this sort of thing it’d be better to have a universal program. Preschool money for poor kids is the sort of thing that sounds good when a state is flush. When a recession comes, Medicaid costs go up, and tax revenues go down it’s another matter. The state needs to balance its budget, and it’s not going to want to do it by slashing services the middle class enjoys. So it comes down to tax increases and cutting services for the poor (and, of course, infrastructure maintenance as we’ve seen recently) and the poor tend to lose.
But the same balanced budget requirements are the very things that make it so hard to pass a universal program in the first place. The structure is similar to Ezra’s argument about the states and health care. That piece turned out to be more controversial than I would have thought. The basic point it pretty simple — it’s very hard to do certain kinds of ambitious progressive programs in the context of strict balanced budget requirements. That’s why liberals oppose a federal balanced budget amendment, that’s why liberals didn’t like the balanced budget fetishism of Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, and that’s also why liberals’ aspirations for state action on pressing issues should also be tempered by realism about the need for a large federal role in anything that’s seriously expensive.