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Saved by the Safety Net
Bhaskar Sompalli's life is testimony to the good the education and a social safety net can do.

By Bhaskar Sompalli

Consider this for a second.

It is the summer of 1982. You are a little boy of 10 in rural south India, sweating in line for hours every other week for the government-run rations shop to open. All for a bag of subsidized rice, sugar, some cooking oil and kerosene. You go to a public school and share a hot classroom packed with 60 students. A tired teacher yells out the lessons to everyone. You dawdle, but catch enough to do well on the tests.

You go to college on a government scholarship and graduate to get a decent job in the city. Later, you come to the United States for higher studies. You better yourself and your family back home.  

Over the years you assimilate into the culture. You get and enjoy the jokes in Seinfeld. You understand and compare the political dialogues ongoing in the two countries. You are concerned that the shining aspect of the American system, the social net, is increasingly being considered to be chopped. You are alarmed that, in the now infamous "oops" in that Republican debate, there were cheers for wanting to eliminate the Department of Education. Since social programs actually do benefit poor people -- because you are proof that it did -- eliminating them is tantamount to cruelty. The reasoning being: In the 1980s, India was in the throes of economic despair; with rampant inflation, a three-year drought, an empty treasury and an anemic market. Yet those programs kept running, helping millions. That it was considered political suicide to cut the programs helped your cause.

You weigh your own experiences with all that you hear and read now, and conclude that it is for the good in a way. You conclude that this is how mature democracies calibrate themselves once in a while. You hope they will conclude that it is, in general, good to keep such programs and a Department of Education even in tough economic times -- especially in tough economic times.

With a Perspective, this is Bhaskar Sompalli.

Bhaskar Sompalli is a scientist living in the East Bay.

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