Mugging the Needy

By BOB HERBERT - April 3, 2003 - original

I had wanted today's column to be about the events in Tulia, Tex., where a criminal justice atrocity is at long last beginning to be corrected.

(For those who don't know, prosecutors are moving to overturn the convictions of everyone seized in an outlandish drug sting conducted by a single wacky undercover officer.)

But there is another issue crying out for immediate attention. With the eyes of most Americans focused on the war, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress are getting close to agreeing on a set of budget policies that will take an awful toll on the poor, the young, the elderly, the disabled and others in need of assistance and support from their government.

The budget passed by the House is particularly gruesome. It mugs the poor and the helpless while giving unstintingly to the rich. This blueprint for domestic disaster has even moderate Republicans running for cover.

The House plan offers the well-to-do $1.4 trillion in tax cuts, while demanding billions of dollars in cuts from programs that provide food stamps, school lunches, health care for the poor and the disabled, temporary assistance to needy families even veterans' benefits and student loans.

An analysis of the House budget by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that its proposed cuts in child nutrition programs threaten to eliminate school lunches for 2.4 million low-income children.

Under the House plan, Congress would be required to cut $265 billion from entitlement programs over 10 years. About $165 billion would come from programs that assist low-income Americans.

This assault on society's weakest elements has been almost totally camouflaged by the war, which has an iron grip on the nation's attention.

The House budget does not dictate the specific cuts that Congress would be required to make. In its analysis, the center assumed (as did the House Budget Committee) that the various entitlement programs would be cut by roughly the same percentages. If one program were to be cut by a somewhat smaller percentage, another would have to be cut more.

The analysis found that in the year in which the budget sliced deepest:

"The cut in Medicaid, if achieved entirely by reducing the number of children covered, would lead to the elimination of health coverage for 13.6 million children."

"The cut in foster care and adoption programs, if achieved by reducing the number of children eligible for foster care assistance payments, would lead to the elimination of benefits for 65,000 abused and neglected children."

"The cut in the food stamp program, if achieved by lowering the maximum benefit, would lead to a reduction in the average benefit from an already lean 91 cents per meal to 84 cents."

When's the last time one of the plutocrats in Congress waded through a meal that cost 84 cents?

The Senate budget is not as egregious. It calls for a total of about $900 billion in tax cuts, and there is no demand for cuts in entitlement programs. But it is not a reasonable budget. In fact, there's something obscene about a millionaires' club like the Senate proposing close to a trillion dollars in tax cuts for the rich while the country is already cutting social programs, running up huge budget deficits and fighting a war in the Middle East.

At least in the House budget the first if not the worst of the cuts are in plain view. In the Senate plan the inevitable pain of the Bush budget policies remains concealed.

"There is a significant human toll in the Senate budget, but it's in the future," said Robert Greenstein, the center's executive director. "What I mean is that given the deficits we're already in, you can't keep doing tax cuts like this you can't keep cutting your revenue base without it inevitably leading to sharp budget cuts."

House and Senate conferees are now trying to resolve the differences in the two budget proposals. They will do all they can to minimize the public relations hit that is bound to come when you're handing trainloads of money to the rich while taking food off the tables of the poor. So you can expect some dismantling of the House proposal.

But no matter what they do, the day of reckoning is not far off. The budget cuts are coming. In voodoo economics, the transfer of wealth is from the poor and the working classes to the rich. It may not be pretty, but it's the law.