War on the Poor
by Jim Wallis
In These Times magazine,
I did a right wing talk show not long
ago on Fox News. Whenever you mention poverty in a venue like
that, they scream that you're engaging in class warfare and promptly
declare war on you.
I've decided that the right wing is correct
on this: There is a class war, but they and their political allies
are the ones who have declared it. As Episcopal Bishop John Chane
said at a recent chapel service: "We've gone from a war on
poverty to a war on the poor."
For those who care about poverty in America,
the coming months are a critical time, a turning point similar
to the New Deal of the '30s or the War on Poverty in the '60s.
Now, as then, we can make a difference in the lives of millions
of people. It is a time for people to speak and act on behalf
of those still trapped in poverty.
In its annual tax analysis for 2000, the
IRS reported that the top 400 taxpayers-only 0.00014 percent of
the population-now take in more than 1 percent of the total income
of all taxpayers. Meantime, their tax payments plummeted, mostly
due to substantial reductions in capital gains tax rates. In 2000,
the average annual income of the top 400 increased to $174 million,
while the average income for the bottom 90 percent was $27,000.
Even the Wall Street Journal calls it "so much money in so
few hands ... a startling accumulation of wealth at the very top
of the income pyramid." The "income gap," wrote
the Journal, is becoming a "vast chasm."
The Bush Budget
A budget is a moral document. It clearly
demonstrates the priorities of a family, an organization, a government.
A budget shows what we most care about. President Bush sent his
budget to Congress in February-a budget that he said reflected
his most important priorities-so it is worth paying close attention
The president's budget of $2.23 trillion
proposed a record deficit of $300 billion, speeded up billions
of dollars of tax cuts that provide most of their benefits to
the wealthiest Americans, called for huge increases for the Pentagon
and slashed domestic spending-including core government programs
that create affordable housing, curb juvenile delinquency, hire
police officers, bring aid to rural schools, help make childcare
available to low-income working mothers and guarantee children's
health insurance. There are the Bush priorities.
The rest of the programs for mentoring
and volunteering laid out in the president's State of the Union
speech, while good, are relatively low-cost and ultimately more
symbolic than substantial. Without the crucial funding for programs
that directly and effectively reduce poverty, "compassionate
conservatism" is now in grave danger of becoming compassionless
Tax and Funding Cuts
It is now clear that the ongoing costs
of the war with Iraq and the Bush administration's tax cuts for
the wealthy are leading to a crisis for America's poorest children.
Indeed, America's poor were the first casualties of this war,
as U.S. domestic needs were literally pushed off the political
In April, Congress approved nearly $80
billion requested by the administration as the first payment for
the war with Iraq. Then they agreed to a budget resolution containing
billions of dollars in new tax cuts and increased spending for
the military, while resources for important domestic programs
fell below the amount needed even to maintain current services
in a deteriorating situation for the poor. In September, the president
asked for speedy approval of an additional $87 billion for military
operations and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The consequences of these actions constitute
a silent war, felt most severely in the poorest parts of the United
States, where low-income families are desperately clutching onto
the bottom rungs of the failing economy. Virtually every state
in America is suffering terrible budget deficits. But there is
no money in this budget for the states, which are confronting
huge deficits and the prospect of draconian cuts in social services,
mostly to the poor. In fact, the administration suggests that
states could meet their budget challenges with the "flexibility"
to cue programs like health insurance for the nation's poorest
children. Consider some recent news stories telling of the administration's
* Cuts in Medicaid benefits mean that
millions of low-income Americans will see reductions in or will
lose health insurance entirely.
* Vouchers that assist nearly 2 million
families to pay rent will be replaced by block grants run by the
states, with no accountability for funding decisions.
* In the last two years, nearly half the
states have cut childcare funding.
The truth is that hungry people will go
without food stamps, poor children will go without health care,
elderly will go without medicine, and school children will go
without textbooks, so that the taxes of the wealthiest Americans
can be further reduced.
Child Tax Credit
The exclusion of low-income working families
from the child tax credit is becoming a parable, revealing a lesson
about what happens to poor families and their children, again
and again- they are simply left out.
Most of the country now knows that the
$350 billion tax cut passed this spring primarily benefited the
wealthiest of Americans. Estimates are that each millionaire will
receive $93,000. Yet 1 percent of the total tax cut-$3.5 billion-could
not be found for families who struggle mightily just to get by.
As part of the legislation, the child tax credit for middle- and
upper-income families was accelerated, and checks of $400 were
sent out. The Senate added an amendment to also accelerate the
refundability of the child credit, so that working families who
earn between $10,500 and $26,650 would benefit.
But at the last minute, in the House-Senate
conference committee, that amendment was
Republicans said they wanted further reductions
in capital-gains tax rates. When the deed was revealed and the
storm broke, the Senate quickly fixed the omission in a way that
costs the Treasury nothing. But the Republican leadership of the
House, seemingly oblivious to the political damage feared by the
White House, brazenly tacked the low-income family child tax credit
onto another $78 billion tax cut for wealthier families- in other
words, using the restoration of the measure for poor families
to increase tax cuts for the rich.
The issue deadlocked, and some Republicans
have actually admitted that their tactic is an attempt to kill
the child tax credit restoration altogether. As checks went in
the mail for middle-class families, low-income working parents
wonder why they got left out in the cold. Majority Leader Tom
Delay's answer: "There are a lot of other things that ate
mote important than this."
In 1996, after much contentious debate,
Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation. Direct federal
cash assistance to people in poverty was ended, consolidated into
block grants to the states-known as Temporary Assistance for Needy
Families, or TANF. The intention of the program was a change in
paradigm from welfare to work.
Five years later the track record is mixed.
Welfare rolls have been reduced by 50 percent, partly due to the
new emphasis and
Homeless in Chicago
partly due to an economy that was-for
most of that time- booming. The overall poverty rate and the child
poverty rate both declined. Yet too many working people remain
poor. Their jobs are mostly entry-level and minimum wage with
few or no benefits. Many are only part time. Twelve million children
are still in poverty.
The 1996 law also prohibited legal immigrants
who entered the United States after 1996 from receiving public
benefits. Some proposals in Congress would eliminate that ban
and open eligibility to immigrants who have achieved legal status.
The administration proposes restoring eligibility for food stamps
only, keeping a ban on other forms of assistance.
What's the best way to build on the undeniable
successes and make changes to improve the weaknesses of welfare
reform? There are several key areas where we should focus our
First, and most important, must be a conceptual
shift from ending welfare to ending poverty. We must | change
the political debate to measure our success by reducing the number
of people in poverty, rather than just by reducing welfare tolls.
Then there is the basic question of funding.
Some of the pending proposals, including the Bush administration's,
maintain TANF funding at the same level it has been for the last
five years-a total of $16.5 billion |
per year-for the next five. But in | real terms, flat funding
is a cut. That $16.5 billion won't buy now what it did in 1996,
and certainly won't in 2007. This is no time to cut our concern,
care and commitment to poor people and their children. Other proposals
call for indexing the amount so that it increases by the rate
of inflation. We have a clear moral message. A budget proposing
billions a year in increases for the military and massive tax
cuts for the wealthiest-while cutting funding for overcoming poverty-is
When debates are framed wrongly, they
almost inevitably turn out badly. That happens all the time on
Capitol Hill. In the welfare debate, focusing on simply reducing
welfare rolls instead of reducing poverty is still the major problem.
Most people involved in anti-poverty efforts would agree now that
helping low-income people find "self-sufficiency" is
far preferable to a system of endless subsidy.
But what are the best ways to support
people in moving from subsidy to sustenance? And if work is the
best way out of poverty (as most of us now agree), how do we make
work really work in America? What do people need in support for
childcare, in real education and training, in securing health
care or affordable housing?
The TANF re-authorization debate could
become a national discussion about how to overcome poverty in
America. In fact, the debate doesn't make any sense apart from
the goal of poverty reduction. Let's state our goal clearly and
unanimously-welfare reform should be judged by how much we are
actually reducing poverty. Then let's have the most honest debate
we've ever had about how to do that.
Reconstruction of Iraq
President Bush asked for $87 billion more
to pay for the American occupation and reconstruction of Iraq.
New reports already reveal the comparative costs and sacrifices
of this enormous expenditure: The entire proposed fiscal-year
budget for the Department of Health and Human Services is $66
billion; l for the Department of Education, $53 billion. The total
amount for all 50 states to meet their projected budget shortfalls
this year is $78 billion.
Clearly the sacrifices for the war in
Iraq will be borne by those in most need who will bear the brunt
of inevitable spending cuts to vital social programs, and by future
generations who will ultimately pay for the beneficiaries of the
Bush tax cuts and the recipients of the lucrative contracts for
Iraqi reconstruction that are going to carefully selected American
corporations. Those who will not sacrifice, in other words, are
the wealthy and powerful allies of the Bush administration-and
their core constituency. It is not hyperbole to say that those
beneficiaries of wartime tax cuts and contract deals should now
be called war profiteers.
So I propose two sacrifices the Bush administration
should now make, if they expect the rest of the nation to share
in the sacrifices of rebuilding Iraq. First, the White House should
admit its miscalculations and policy failures. And those responsible
for the failures should be the first to sacrifice. Therefore,
the chief architects of the failed Iraqi policy- Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz-should
both be asked to resign. These chief Utiilateralists have presided
over the policy failures and, if a better direction of international
cooperation is to be restored in Iraq, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz
must step aside. Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc..) already has called
for their resignations.
Second, if the White House calls for sacrifice
are to have any moral credibility, the administration's tax cuts
to the wealthiest Americans must be immediately rescinded. Neither
the poor, nor our children and their children, should be forced
to pay for the war in Iraq, while those with the greatest ability
to sacrifice are reaping a whirlwind of benefit.
Whether the resignations of Rumsfeld and
Wolfowitz or the repeal of the tax cuts are politically likely
at this moment (and they aren't) is not the point. There are fundamental
issues of moral accountability here that go beyond political calculation.
And those questions of accountability will be especially vital
during an election year.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners,
which previously published the stories from which this article
was excerpted. For more go to www.sojo.nec.
Class War watch