Heavy Lifting

By BOB HERBERT - NYT, February 13, 2003 - original

He's at it again.

President Bush traveled to Nashville on Monday to talk, among other things, about compassion, which is a topic this president probably should leave alone. Mr. Bush's idea of compassion tends to send a shiver of dread through those who are disadvantaged.

But there he was in Nashville at the National Religious Broadcasters convention, exhorting his audience to "rally the armies of compassion so that we can change America one heart, one soul at a time."

The president said religious organizations had a responsibility to assist the poor and those who are suffering, and to help alleviate the "artificial divisions" of race and economics.

"I welcome faith to help solve the nation's deepest problems," he said.

If religious leaders take up the challenge they will have to do some awfully heavy lifting, because Mr. Bush's domestic policies instead of easing suffering are all but guaranteed to provide an ever-swelling stream of people in need of help.

Everywhere you turn, support programs for the poor, the ill, the disabled and the elderly are under attack. Children's services are being battered. As Mr. Bush smiles and talks about compassion, funding for programs large and small is being squeezed, cut back, eliminated.

The day after Mr. Bush's upbeat speech to the religious broadcasters, The Times's Robert Pear revealed that the administration was proposing a change in federal law that would result in rent increases for thousands of poor people receiving housing aid.

The administration has proposed a restructuring of Medicare that would curtail, rather than enhance, delivery of health services to the elderly. In the $2.2 trillion budget that Mr. Bush sent to Congress last week was an unconscionable proposal that would eliminate after-school programs for 500,000 children. In the arena of bad ideas, that one's a champion. It would result not just in hardship, but tragedy. For one thing, the peak hours for juvenile crime are 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., with the biggest, most dangerous burst coming in the very first hour after school. That is also the time of day when most teenage girls become pregnant.

Mr. Bush has proposed cuts in juvenile delinquency programs, public housing assistance, children's health insurance and on and on. He's even undermined the funding for his own highly touted school reform program, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Senator Edward Kennedy, who had worked closely with the president on the school reform legislation, said yesterday, "As soon as the Klieg lights were off and the bunting came down, the Bush administration turned its back on school reform and America's children."

Looming over this calculated assault on programs of crucial importance to millions of Americans is Mr. Bush's colossal accumulation of tax cuts for the wealthy and an endless mountain range of federal budget deficits. The ideologues on the right are close to realizing their dream of crippling social services by starving the government of revenues.

Dr. J. Lawrence Aber, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, said yesterday:
"These cuts are tearing at what was emerging as a bipartisan consensus at the end of the last administration that the unfinished agenda on welfare reform was to create the work and family supports necessary to continue to help people move from welfare to work."

Tip O'Neill once said of Ronald Reagan, "He has no concern, no regard, no care for the little man of America."

George W. Bush is making the Gipper look like a softy.

Policies that affect the poor and working poor seldom get sustained attention. In an atmosphere of terror and impending war, Mr. Bush's approach to social services is getting even shorter shrift than usual. The policies he is attempting to put in place would largely overturn the notion we've had of a federal responsibility for programs to help struggling Americans. Mr. Bush would turn much of that responsibility over to the states, which are struggling with backbreaking budget problems of their own that are forcing drastic reductions in state services.

The collective result would be a long-term abandonment of the most needy among us. It's difficult to square that with the idea of compassion, conservative or otherwise.