Renée Loth

Patrick’s book vs. his budget

By Renée Loth
April 23, 2011

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GOVERNOR PATRICK wants to go by the book — his book, with its idealism and uplift and unapologetic invocation of grace, even love, to guide his public life. But it isn’t easy.

“A Reason to Believe,” Patrick’s memoir, espouses the values of compassion and social justice, whether for immigrant hotel workers being treated shabbily by a distant corporation, or gay couples wanting the right to marry. “Ours may be the only nation in human history not organized around a common language or religion or culture so much as a common set of civic ideals,” he writes. “And we have defined those ideals over time and through struggle as equality, opportunity, and fair play.”

Patrick writes movingly of respecting the dignity of all people, at one point defending the poor against easy “market fundamentalism,” which he says is mostly about “letting people’s consciences off the hook.”

But his book explains little about how he reconciles his values with political reality, as when he confronts budget strictures or opposition to his ideals. How does he fit the round peg of a caring society into the square hole of a $1.9 billion deficit?

When I asked that in a recent interview, Patrick said “grappling with [a budget] issue as a values issue is part of the point I’m trying to make here.” He discussed, for example, the Legislature’s 2009 elimination of health coverage for legal immigrants, which he fought to restore, at least partially. His ideals, he said, helped him see through the budget thicket. “In making some of these nasty choices it has helped to have a values framework,” he said.

Patrick is going to need that framework again, because the House budget for the coming fiscal year eliminates health care coverage for 19,000 legal immigrant residents, for a savings of $50 million. It also cuts at least $2 million from anti-gang and youth violence programs Patrick has identified as a priority.

And now we learn that the governor’s own proposed budget cuts 20 percent, or $2.6 million, from the state’s Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, a bedrock anti-poverty effort widely recognized as essential to children’s health and their readiness for school.

The WIC program is hardly profligate, and it isn’t a frill. It is a food prescription — administered at medical centers — so the benefit can’t be used for sugary soft drinks or unhealthy items, and it keeps parents coming back for regular baby checkups. The typical benefit for poor pregnant women and children up to age 5 includes a dozen eggs, four gallons of milk, 16 ounces of peanut butter, two pounds of bread, and $6 in fruits and vegetables a month.

The federal WIC grant has long been inadequate, and Massachusetts was the first state to add its own funding, in 1983. Where is that leadership now? “Many of us feel there is a social compact to protect the most vulnerable,” said Dr. Alan Meyers, staff pediatrician in the primary care clinic at Boston Medical Center. The WIC cut, he says, is “a sad statement about how we’re operating.” He sounds a lot like Patrick, at least in the first part of the sentence.

Patrick has been a pleasure to watch on his national book tour: authentic, funny, inspirational, and unfailingly polite. He echoed the values theme Sunday on the ABC program “This Week,” when he was asked to comment on President Obama’s deficit speech. He praised Obama for setting the proper “subtext” for the national budget debate. The central underlying question, he said, is “What kind of country do we want to be?”

Yes, and what kind of state? Unlike his friend the president, Patrick has just won reelection and is enjoying the consolidation of his powers. Admirably, he didn’t abandon his idealism in his reelection campaign, sticking to the high ground when the race got ugly. But in the next three-plus years he has an opportunity to live his values in concrete ways. Restoring common sense and compassion to the state budget is a good place to start.

“Everyone, especially young people, must learn that their ideals need not be casualties of their confrontations with reality,” Patrick writes. A lot of people hope he will lead by example.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.