Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Soaking the Poor

It seems so long ago and far away, now that President Obama is spinning around in an oratorical frenzy of populism. But remember last summer, when he offered up draconian cuts to the deficit hawks in exchange for allowing the nation to raise the debt ceiling and pay its bills? It could have been worse, the pragmatists insisted.  He wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, but John Boehner refused.  We bit the bullet on that one, temporarily. The country's credit rating only tanked by one letter. And Obama proudly proved his deficit hawk cred all the same, and bragged at the time that he had cut spending to the lowest levels seen since the Eisenhower Administation. He was a fiscal conservative, and a true believer in the old canard that if the country tightens its belt just like a family does during hard times, the economy will magically burst at the seams. 
Then came the national protest movement known as Occupy, the looming re-election campaign, the continually tanking economy.... and Obama decided it was time to pivot back to pretend progressivism.  He fired his bankster chief of staff and hired a different bankster chief of staff who is now insisting they never were Austerians. You can't make cuts in a time of recession, they shrill. It's all the Republicans' fault. Call Congress! Pass This Bill!

So, when the White House released its budget last week to minimal fanfare, they tried to gloss over all the de facto austerian discretionary cuts. "It looks worse than it actually is," they insist, counting on nobody actually reading its thousands of pages. "The money is just being switched around.... there's a lot of waste and redundancy.... when ObamaCare finally kicks in years from now, it'll all be good."

Ha, ha, ha. I spent half an hour skimming the Osterity Budget last night. A cursory glance reveals that if you happen to be in that one third of Americans now classified as either dirt poor or teetering on the brink, Fiscal Year 2013 is not going to be very good for you. I will be blunt: this President does not give a rat's ass about poor people. The cuts may seem miniscule in the big picture, but for people who must count every penny, they are literally the difference between life and death. Here is the official White House budget-unveiling propaganda:

We now face a make-or-break moment for the middle class and those trying to reach it. After decades of eroding middle-class security as those at the very top saw their incomes rise as never before and after a historic recession that plunged our economy into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover, it is time to construct an economy that is built to last.
The President’s 2013 Budget is built around the idea that our country does best when everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same rules. We must transform our economy from one focused on speculating, spending, and borrowing to one constructed on the solid foundation of educating, innovating, and building. That begins with putting the Nation on a path to living within our means – by cutting wasteful spending, asking all Americans to shoulder their fair share, and making tough choices on some things we cannot afford, while keeping the investments we need to grow the economy and create jobs. The Budget targets scarce federal resources to the areas critical to growing the economy and restoring middle-class security: education and skills for American workers, innovation and research and development, clean energy, and infrastructure.
The Budget is a blueprint for how we can rebuild an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded..
As you can tell, Obama still hasn't been able to completely wean himself from the bad habit of comparing the most powerful country on earth with a family living within its means. And he is talking only to the "hard-working folks" about getting a fair shake and fair shot. If you are poor, old or disabled, then you are not doing your fair share and this budget makes it painfully clear that you have no shot at reaching that fabled Middle Class.  Here are just a few examples of how this Democratic administration would like to punish our most vulnerable citizens:

Housing for Persons with Disabilities: a cut from $165 million to $150 million. This may seem miniscule, but if you are physically challenged and on a waiting list for an apartment outfitted with ramps, wheel-in showers and other amenities, you are going to have to wait even longer. There is a real shortage of rental units for disabled people as it is. The Obama budget assures us that current construction for special housing will go on. Just no new disabled-friendly housing units, because you have to cut the waste.

Community Block Grants: funding was already drastically cut last year, leading to a nationwide protest by mayors serving inner cities. Now, President Obama proposes to cut 2013 aid to poor neighborhoods nearly in half, from $679 million to $350 million. The reason? The Government Accounting Office and Health and Human Services have determined that there has not been enough "oversight" of entities receiving the grants.  Hmmmm... I guess all those paper bags full of cash being dropped on ghettoes are finding their way into the wrong hands. Drug Lord Hamid Karzai needs it more in Afghanistan, and God knows there is no oversight on the forever wars.

The Job Corps: being cut from $1.703 million to $1.650 million. Another seemingly miniscule, gratuitous cut, from a program designed to train disadvantaged youth. Again, without going into any details or providing one iota of evidence, the White House explains that it's cutting this program in order to launch a "bold reform effort to improve outcomes and strengthen accountability."  Uh-huh. Spend less money to improve something. This is very Paul Ryanesque, using the rationale that youmust destroy something (Medicare) to improve it. Reforming the Job Corps smells like another privatization scheme to me.

Children's Mental Health Services: being cut from $117 million to $84 million. No new grants will be issued, and no needy children newly diagnosed with emotional disturbances will be accepted into existing clinics. No explanation. It is now estimated that a quarter of all children fall below the poverty level. Since economic hardship is a known causative agent in depression and other mental illnesses, it is stunning to me why this budget has not been quadrupled. More totally gratuitous, deficit hawk chest-thumping.

Low Income Home Energy Assistance: there was shocked disbelief last year when the president cut this funding. He is doing it once again, with another cut from the already low $3.472 million to $3.020 million. Luckily, this winter was fairly mild and there are no known cases of people freezing to death because they couldn't afford heating oil. Congress actually restored some of the money Obama had cut last year.

If you thought that the government's fraudclosure settlement with the banks was a kick in the teeth, they are now planning to kick some of the hardest hit victims while they are still down. Obama, while bragging on how he will help upper middle class people adjust their mega-mortgages in exchange for letting the banks get off scot free, wants to make severely poor people contribute a bigger chunk of their meager resources to their subsidized rent payments. I was happy to see an editorial in today's New York Times critical of this heartless plan:
Affordable housing advocates are rightly alarmed by proposals in the White House budget and in Congress that would drive up rents for the nation’s poorest public housing residents, many of whom are in households that subsist on less than $3,000 a year. If the federal government raises rents in housing subsidy programs that shelter about 4.5 million households, it must do so in a way that shields the poorest from eviction and homelessness.
Under current federal law, housing authorities have the option of setting a minimum rent of $50 per month. About a quarter of public housing agencies around the country have set the minimum below that number, allowing some of the poorest families to pay $25 or less. A bill in the House would require that the minimum rent in public housing be raised to $69.45. The White House budget would raise it to $75.
These may seem like small amounts, until you consider households where single parents with two children might be subsisting on food stamps and about $250 in cash payments from the federal public assistance program. Many of these families are already teetering on the verge of homelessness. Some in Congress support raising the minimum rent as an adjustment for inflation, but the resources of poor families generally have not increased.
In the adding insult to injury category, President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner this morning rolled out a brand new plan to cut corporate tax rates in exchange for maybe sewing shut a few of those pesky loopholes with some very cheap thread. Oh, and it's too hard to really fix the Tax Code in less than several years. But it is good politically to say that you'd like to, because it will make the Republicans seem anti-business if they don't agree to it during this election season.

I am feeling shaken. I feel like this country's citizens are being lined up in front of a firing squad and shot. And it isn't fair.


Denis Neville said...

"We owe a rooster to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt." – Socrates’ last words

Life isn't fair.

Vulnerable people are being callously consigned to a metaphorical dustbin.

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” – C.S. Lewis

During these difficult and discouraging times, I recall the great Russian author Vasily Grossman, who said, “In the cruel and terrible time in which our generation has been condemned to live on this earth, we must never make peace with evil. We must never become indifferent to others or undemanding of ourselves.”

Valerie said...

I don't in any way want to distract from this post and will comment on it in a minute, but I just got an e-mail from Free Speech for People appealing to all of us to write to our local newspapers to publicise a slight chance that the Supreme Court would revisit Citizens United. Justices Ginsburg and Kennedy just issued an extraodinary statement, calling on their fellow Justices "to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway." []

They even have an easy letter where you just click on the paragraphs you want to include and the e-mail is automatically addressed to your local papers. It took me about five minutes to add my own comments to the letter. I really think this is worth doing. Go to

Note - You need to click on the box next to the name of the newspapers to get this option. If you click on the name of the newspaper it will just take you to the website of the newspaper.

DW2000 said...

Great commentary Karen. The gratuitous nature of these cuts...the fact that they will have zero effect on the national financial situation but devastating effect on so many people in the most extreme situations...this is really an abomination.

Matched with the call to cut corporate tax rates....and the endless expansion of military adventure...


Reich on the tax rate

James F Traynor said...

The man's a shit.

James F Traynor said...

Thanks. Did that.

Denis Neville said...

“Religion is a defense against the experience of God." - Carl Jung

For all the “Christian” rhetoric of all the Republican candidates, and even President Obama, none have much to say about the special duty government owes to protect and aid poor, weak, and vulnerable people in our society. Where are the moral values of these so-called “Christians”?

The poor are unwanted and unseen by most politicians. The poor are all too often stereotyped as lazy and/or drug abusers. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

“If conversion to Christianity makes no improvement in a man’s outward actions – if he continues to be just as snobbish or spiteful or envious or ambitious as he was before – then I think we must suspect that his conversion was largely imaginary. Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they make our actual behavior better.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Kat said...

The idea that the poor that don't vote Democratic are not voting in their self interest is getting to be a more and more ridiculous argument.
Anyway, I just want to emphatically second what DW2000 said.
Valerie, I clicked on my paper thru your link and what should come up but:
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, along with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis made their first stop on the Community College to Career Tour, looking to draw attention to successful partnerships between businesses and community colleges. The mission: to develop the most “competitive workforce in the world,” said Biden.

I think they meant "compliant" workforce.

Denis Neville said...

Coming soon to America?

“We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” – George Orwell, 1984

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered...I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies... The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs." – Thomas Jefferson

Michael Hudson, on the Greek experiment, “The Greek crisis is being used to find out how far finance can drive down wages and privatize the public sector.”

“For the last five years in Latvia, the neoliberals have lowered wages by about thirty percent. The basic premise of today’s model builders is: you don’t know how far you can lower wages and pensions until people begin to press back. Well, in Latvia they still haven’t begun to press back when they’ve lowered by thirty percent. Now they’re moving towards Greece on the way to Spain and Portugal and Italy, and they’re trying to figure out how much can wages be lowered, how much can an economy be drained until there is unrelenting pressure from the afflicted population…Greece is being used as a laboratory experiment to determine the results when labor is squeezed very hard. It’s like trying to feed a horse less and less and see whether it’s really going to be more efficient until it keels over dead.”

Alexander Abad-Santos, The Atlantic Wire, adds this to our vocabulary, "negative salary,"

“It's being called the "negative salary": Up to 64,000 Greeks will go without pay this month, and some will have to pay for having a job.”

“Salary cutbacks (called "unified payroll") for contract workers at the public sector set to be finalized today. Cuts to be valid retroactively since November 2011. Expected result: Up to 64.000 people will work without salary this month, or even be asked to return money. Amongst them 21.000 teachers, 13.000 municipal employees and 30.000 civil servants."

Paul Mason, just returned from Greece, "What makes the headlines are, of course, the riots. What doesn’t make so many headlines is what is happening to real people... We are living in a time where the world has, in the last couple of years, erupted in a way that many people thought they would never see again since the 1960s...The underpinnings of this new global unrest are that...people are sick of seeing the rich get richer during a crisis."

“Shelve the abiding fiction that disasters do not discriminate – that they flatten everything in their path with ‘democratic’ disregard. Plagues zero in on the dispossessed, on those forced to build their lives in the path of danger.” – Hein Marais