Congress funds more warplanes—while our communities still need more relief

By Tori Bateman, Arnie Alpert

As COVID-19 cases continue to soar, people across the United States are losing their jobs, struggling to pay bills, and dealing with health crises. While it was welcome news that Congress passed a coronavirus relief package earlier this week, the aid still falls short of ensuring people get the help they need. Millions of immigrants are still excluded from receiving stimulus checks and other benefits, and direct aid to state and local governments—facing massive budget shortfalls—didn't make the cut.   

However, earlier this month, the House and Senate passed the defense spending bill for 2021— which provided a grim reminder of the budget priorities of many of our elected officials. Negotiators included 96 F-35 warplanes as part of the defense funding bill. That’s 17 more planes than the Pentagon had even asked for—at a price tag of about $100 million a piece.

We saw this pattern of prioritizing weapons over our communities in March of this year, too, when Congress passed its first stimulus package in response to the pandemic. While our communities were watching for signs the federal government would help us weather this crisis, 130 lawmakers had the audacity to write a letter to the leadership of the House Armed Services Committee, asking the government to once again use taxpayer dollars to purchase 98 F-35 warplanes—19 more than the Pentagon had requested. 

While prioritizing weapons of war over public health during a pandemic seems shocking, it's business as usual for Congress and administration after administration. For years, the federal government has chosen to invest massive amounts of money into preparing for war while neglecting public health, education, and other domestic priorities. 

In the regular budget cycle for Fiscal Year 2020, the Pentagon got a whopping $738 billion. Compare that to Health and Human Services, which got only $94 billion. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been front and center in the fight against coronavirus, received under $8 billion in program funding.

These misguided budget priorities come at a huge cost, and now we are seeing that cost firsthand. To be conservative, let’s use the $77.9 million price tag for a single F-35A—the least expensive version. The price of just one of these warplanes could buy 77.9 million N-95 face masks at one dollar each. The 17 additional F-35s funded by the Senate’s bill would cover years’ worth of rent for more than 93,000 people.  

When our government misallocates money into war that could have gone into keeping our communities healthy, we all suffer.

It is unconscionable that so many of our elected officials would continue to aggressively support the war machine in the middle of a global health crisis—especially when much-needed investment in the health care sector would create twice the number of jobs as the same amount of investment in the defense industry.

Imagine if we had been "ready" for a public health crisis or financial collapse, rather than pretending that spending billions on weapons actually makes us safer. 

The scope of a pandemic shows that the biggest threats to our security can come through inattention to public health. Pandemics, climate change, inadequate infrastructure and education, and lack of affordable housing are some of the biggest threats to collective well-being we face. We urgently need investment in health care, the environment, and other sectors that help us thrive. In order to do this, our leaders need to start investing money where it matters—not in weapons of war, but in programs that build truly resilient communities.