“You don’t know what you have here in America, you know?” said the cabby who drove me home from the airport. When his father died in Ethiopia, he had to drop out of his American university where he was studying computer engineering to start driving cabs to support his family back in Ethiopia. Ethiopia has no social safety net.
“In America,” said my cab driver, “you have services and programs that help keep families together in hard times.” He hasn’t seen his family in nine years. His cab-drivers’ salary is hardly enough to pay for a plane ticket to Ethiopia. Besides, if he takes time off, that would be less food, education, and possible eviction for his mother, brothers and sisters.
While it is true that America has a social safety net, it is weaker than it was just forty years ago and it’s come under more intense attack in recent years. The deficit is the justification for shredding the net now. And extremists are pushing the party that claims a lock on “family values” to nullify the programs that protect at-risk American families from slipping into poverty.
In the name of “fiscal responsibility,” the Tea Party-led House GOP passed H.R. 1956, a bill that takes cash from the hands of America’s poorest working families in order to protect the richest of the rich. H.R. 1956 requires workers to present a Social Security Number rather than an IRS issued Individual Tax Identification Number to claim the child tax credit. Seems simple enough, but the bill is crafted to target working immigrant families the hardest, even if they are legal residents or have children that are American citizens. The GOP called this a compromise. H.R. 1956 is what they offered in return for the extension of the Payroll Tax cut. Congress could have paid for that extension by ending the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which were set to expire on January 1, 2012. But the GOP said absolutely not. Instead, they crafted H.R. 1956.
Think about that. The House GOP took cash from the hands of poor children to prioritize tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Shameless. And the bill is slated for a vote in the Senate THIS week.
According to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Bush-era tax cuts will be the single largest contributor to America’s long-term debt within seven years. When we add the residual costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, together these two expenses will account for half of the entire U.S. Public Debt (measured as a share of the economy). Check out this graphic.
In a recent emailed statement Ellen Nissenbaum, senior vice president of government affairs for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, stated: “In both a legislative and political context, the threats are growing to the core safety net programs that are the most essential to reducing poverty and helping vulnerable families.” Nissenbaum added, “Attacks on SNAP, the refundable tax credits for working families, Medicaid and even on Unemployment Insurance, which obviously is not limited to low-income workers, are growing in the campaign airwaves.” Roadside campaign rhetoric cultivates the climate for post campaign policy-making. If this rhetoric was actual policy at the time of the economic downturn, then millions more people would have fallen into poverty without a safety net in 2010.
We know how to balance the deficit without threatening the lives and livelihoods of poor people and without making middle class and working people more vulnerable to poverty in hard times.
- If we ended the Bush-era tax cuts we would cut the long-term deficit by one third over the next seven years.
- One of the greatest contributors to the deficit is escalating health care costs and their drain on programs like Medicare and Medicaid. The solution is not to cut aid to hurting people. It is to cut costs. The chief recommendation of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in a 2010 report was the addition of a “Public Plan” to Insurance Exchanges to drive down the cost of health care.
- Protection of programs like SNAP/Food Stamps not only protected 2 percent of the population from falling into poverty in 2010, this program and other safety net programs like it serve as great boosts to depressed economies. Money flows directly from the hands of recipients and into local super markets, farmers' markets, and convenience stores.
- Continue the present administrations moves to make the military more efficient, nimble, and cost effective.
Budgets are moral documents and how we reduce the deficit is still a moral issue.
Nowhere in scripture do we see an example of God instituting or approving policies that snatch money from the hands of poor people to protect the wealthiest individuals and businesses—nowhere. Rather, we see God’s establishment of the Sabbath, the Sabbatical Year, and the Year of Jubilee. All three policies protected the poor and workers and limited the level of wealth that could be amassed by any one individual, family, business, or even the nation of Israel itself within a generation.
I am not advocating that America becomes a theocracy or adopts these policies verbatim. We are a democratic republic, by and for the people, not a theocracy. What I argue is that these three fiscal public policies offer a window into God’s priorities. In God’s economy people are more important than profit. Under God’s governance food is never ever ripped from the mouths of hungry children in order to line the pockets of the rich. Never.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author of Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat.