Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Senate approved state budget SB 850, which includes severe reductions in funding for the arts for the upcoming fiscal year. The budget, which passed by a 30-20 vote, cuts funding for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts from $15 million to zero - effectively eliminating all monies designated for arts and culture grants throughout the state. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission suffered similarly, in a move that could affect not only museums and historical societies but some public television programs as well.

In a bleak economy, budget cuts are a necessity - but from the arts? Even aside from a philosophical belief that art benefits a society and its citizens, such drastic cuts will inevitably mean massive layoffs for those who work in the arts sector if the House passes the bill.

Zero is a shock-value word, and I did indeed feel shock as I read reports of the Senate's decision. I don't want to see my state's arts and culture budgets slashed. Yet in a state where 16.8 percent of all children live below the poverty level - a number that climbs to nearly one-third of children in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and in several rural counties - I have to question if money spent on the arts is the best allocation of resources.

Muslih-uddin Sadi, a 13th-century Persian poet, said that if all he owned was two loaves of bread, he would sell one loaf and buy hyacinths to feed his soul. I love hyacinths, and I love the idea of feeding my soul, but I can't help wonder if Muslih-uddin Sadi was very hungry when he wrote that - or if, indeed, he had ever been very hungry.

Christine A. Scheller recently wrote about the high infant mortality rate in this country, a rate directly linked to maternal poverty. I can't quite wrap my mind around our country's infant mortality rate, any more than I can process a third of Philadelphia's children living in poverty. I look at my daughter's Sunday school class and try to imagine a third of them going home to inadequate housing, going to bed hungry. I can't do it. If it's fund the arts or feed the kids, I'm going to vote for the kids every time - which isn't to say that cuts in the arts budget will correspond to increased funds for hungry children. It's only to say that, quite simply, there isn't enough money for everything and difficult decisions must be made.

Pennsylvania isn't the only state slashing funding for the arts - Florida, Utah, and Michigan are looking at similar cuts, just to name a few. As the economy continues to tighten the proverbial purse strings, more cuts will almost surely follow.

So, what do you think? Fund the arts? Feed the kids? How should we decide where to make necessary cutbacks in an ailing economy?