July 26, 2011
Something is terribly amiss in America. In Washington, we witness around-the-clock meetings on a fake crisis ginned up by politicians over how to raise the debt ceiling. Yet no attention is devoted to the real crisis of how the floor is falling out from underneath the most vulnerable in our society.
In Washington, pious conservatives demand no tax hikes on the rich while calling for cuts in programs for the poor — from nutrition for infants to Pell grants for deserving college students. In Michigan and Wisconsin and states across the country, taxes on corporations and the rich are being lowered, while investment in education and support for the poor and unemployed are being cut.
We were taught to know the tree by the fruit it bears, not the bark it wears. But for all the pious protestations of politicians, the tree they offer is barren. The fruit of their work does not correspond to the bark of their words.
Consider the state of Michigan, brutalized by the outsourcing of good jobs. Unemployment in June of this year was at 10.5 percent and rising; among African-Americans it is at Great Depression levels of more than 20 percent. Yet Michigan reduced its unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks, even as it slashed corporate taxes by 86 percent.
The number of children in poverty is at record levels; the U.S. government estimates nearly one in four children in America is now living in poverty, the highest since the government began keeping track. In Michigan, the number of homeless students in public school districts rose from 7,500 in 2007-08 to 22,673 in 2009-10.
Yet the Michigan House and Senate have decided, and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign legislation that would establish a lifetime limit (retroactively) of 48 months eligibility for the Family Independence Program or cash assistance program. More than 92,000 white families and nearly 130,000 African-American families (mothers with children) receive assistance from the program. Some 15,000 families are at risk of losing their benefits on Oct. 1, with thousands facing expiration in the weeks thereafter. The Michigan League for Human Services estimates that 25,000 poor children will face loss of benefits. The deadline applies even to those following the prescribed program for self-sufficiency.
And with the shortage of jobs, this will add to the homeless, the hungry and the destitute — and will weaken the economy to boot. Renters will lose the roofs over their heads. The unemployed won’t be able to afford public transportation — where it is available — to search for work.
As if that were not enough, Michigan has also lowered the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, effectively raising taxes on the poorest workers even as the governor cuts taxes on the wealthiest. And in the fall of 2012, they’ve even eliminated the $80 school clothing allowance for poor children. Yet corporate subsidies in the millions are extended.
Jesus taught that what you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me. Every faith emphasizes the importance of doing to others as we would have them do unto us, of caring for the vulnerable among us.
In Dr. Martin Luther King’s last months, he worked on building a Poor People’s Campaign across bounds of race and region and religion. He argued that there had to be a floor beneath which no American would be allowed to fall. He called for a full employment policy, with government as the employer of last resort and for a living wage. He warned that a country that spent more on military armaments than support for the poor was a nation facing moral bankruptcy.
The debt ceiling negotiations that dominate Washington are a political invention, a crisis cooked up by zealots threatening to blow up the economy to get cuts in spending — particularly on Medicare and Social Security — that would otherwise never be passed. But even as negotiations go on about lifting the ceiling, the floor is falling out from under the most vulnerable Americans.
The poor and the word “poverty” are invisible in the public debate. Seldom have our policies been more divorced from our stated values.