Requiem For an ARRA Intern

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This past summer I had the pleasure of holding an editorial internship with The Texas Observer, where I reported on trends and discrepancies apparent in the Texas portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. When I first began researching the act, the task seemed incredibly daunting. Literally thousands of charts filled with bureaucratic jargon were thrown against me like a fierce gust of wind against a stack of papers. As I learned to analyze and interpret the data, I only grew more frustrated at the state government’s lack of transparency and effectiveness in utilizing the Recovery Act to its maximum potential.

Let’s flash back to October 2008: It’s the fiercest time in the U.S. presidential election and amidst the usual wave of candidate insults, the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression fell upon the country. The candidates were taking “breaks” from the campaign to return to Congress to vote on the single biggest economic jump-start in history, what would later become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

With this financial meltdown underway, thousands of Americans were losing their jobs by the minute with no refuge in sight.  When the Recovery Act debates were taking place, the main goal of the legislation was to provide unemployed workers with comparable work. Most of these jobs, however, turned out to be in the public sector and government; not exactly the type of work these individuals were looking for. Sure, plenty of infrastructure jobs like building roads across the country were created, but an investment banker or unskilled laborer probably think see these jobs met their financial needs.

In June 2010, when I’m sitting in the Observer office feeling completely overwhelmed, I was expected to provide credible and accurate reporting for one of the fiercest political magazines in the state. My job focused mainly on Texas’ handling of ARRA and occasionally compared other states with how Texas was fairing. Yet my main resources proved to be only occasionally reliable at best. No elected or appointed state official could actually give me a clear cut answer on why ARRA projects were being granted or denied, why they received the funds they did and how they will benefit the local economy. It seemed as if the people handling ARRA in Texas were members of a skull and bones society where Gov. Rick Perry served as the dominant hazer.

When I contacted state officials with questions regarding ARRA, I was often sent to voicemail or to the hands of one of their assistants, with my questions unanswered. On one occasion when writing a story about the state’s battle against drugs, I was transferred on the phone from an Austin branch of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the Huntsville branch and back to Austin again. I incessantly hounded these people with questions trying to get answers. My questions weren’t insidious claims, but just efforts to get information where I was ignored. I imagine these people saying to their peers “Why does this kid care about one little ARRA project? Isn’t there something else to report on or a pot of coffee that needs to be brewed for the Observer staff?” Sorry guys, ARRA was my beat, but it’s still an important piece of legislation that the public needs to be updated on.

The lack of state ARRA transparency wouldn’t be nearly as harmful if it didn’t lead to such broad accusations based on loosely interpreted facts. Many financial bloggers on websites like MSN and Yahoo! often say Texas has one of the most robust, recession-proof economies in the country. They base such claims on how Texas has created numerous jobs throughout the state, but as stated above, many of these jobs aren’t the one where the unemployed are seeking refuge. Construction and highway projects, dominant in Austin, beckon residents to wonder, “When are they actually going to be done building the city?” Yes, jobs are being created, but they also aren’t being kept.

Without actually speaking to government and state officials, my posts would have been similar to the ones where I would read how many jobs were created and publish a hollow story about how well the Texas economy is doing. Throughout my time living in Texas and visiting its numerous cities since January 2009, I have never met a person who could safely say that their job survived because of the Recovery Act. Sure, they’re definitely out there, but from the picture that is being painted of Texas having one of the strongest economies in the nation, you’d think I’d have stumbled into one.

My time at the Observer is finished and in many ways I accomplished what I set out to do. I was able to write for a major Texas magazine on real government affairs and issues. I met professional contacts that I plan to keep in touch with in the future. But even through my strongest efforts, I failed in telling the real story and happenings with the ARRA. However for this I do not take fault. When writing an essay for school, I’ll take responsibility if my grade proves less than favorable. However, with this job, I tried my hardest to get the answers, but the officials failed in their responsibility to get them to me.

I hope the next intern will have more success in figuring out what actually is going on with ARRA by pouring through the thousands of government files that provide no clear-cut conclusion on the subject. I hope state officials will actually answer their calls since the intern won’t quit in finding the answers. But with the lack of information available on ARRA in Texas along with the government not giving clear, credible answers, all I can conclude as a former Texas Observer intern is with the Recovery Act, all we can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best.