Washington, D.C. – The debate over how to fix the $1.4 trillion shortfall and rein in $14 trillion in national debt has become less about money and more about government's role in caring for the poor, the vulnerable, and the growing number of unemployed and underemployed.
President Obama is standing firm on plans to discontinue tax breaks for the wealthy. Republican leaders are threatening cuts to safety net programs at a time when more Americans need assistance.
Chairman of the House Budget Committee Paul Ryan (R-WI) describes his budget proposal as necessary steps “to get prosperity back on track” and “help people on welfare get back on their feet.” Others say it is a dangerous plan that will hurt millions of low-income families, children and the elderly.
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In a recent conference call with Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, a nonpartisan forum for discussing policy solutions to poverty, Rep. Ryan said if the U.S. government fails to bring the budget and deficit under control, the first to be hurt will be those who depend on government most.
“The strength of that safety net is dependent on the health of our economy and the federal government's ability to finance the safety net,” said Ryan.
Critics say Ryan has it backwards. His swipes at programs for the young and old will hurt those barely hanging on in the fragile economy. Thousands more jobs will be lost in every state, further slowing recovery.
Ryan's “Roadmap for America's Future” cuts government aid that he says creates a culture of dependency. The plan snips the threads of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that Americans contribute to during their working years and count on for retirement or disability.
His plan also slashes Pell grants, which help students from low-income families go to college, and unemployed workers return to school to sharpen their skills or train for new careers.
“By continually increasing Pell funding, we are feeding education inflation,” said Ryan.
Ryan also proposes a 20 percent cut to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), pointing to reports that the food stamp program is “rife with fraud.”
Ryan's budget proposal, called the “Path to Prosperity” – and which some Democrats refer to as the “Road to Ruin” – spotlights the deep fiscal-policy rift between the two parties.
“This budget anticipates the storm on the horizon and pre-empts the pain, the real pain, of being forced to cut everyone indiscriminately. The best welfare program is the one that ends with the individual empowered and not dependent on government,” Ryan said.
Clare Crawford, executive director of the Center on Policy Initiatives in San Diego, said Ryan's plan fails to address the economic realities the vast majority of Americans face.
“He keeps referencing a life of dependence, but the economic reality is that there are multiple job seekers for every existing job. The people who are relying on the safety net now are recently unemployed or under-employed,” she said.
Crawford said she's frustrated that Ryan and other Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for the wealthy that were supposed to be temporary.
“That they have been unwilling to consider real shared sacrifice by everyone on the income spectrum is just outrageous,” she said.
Nationwide polls repeatedly show Americans demanding shared sacrifice, tapping the rich instead of further punishing the poor. A recent Boston Globe poll showed 73 percent of likely voters support raising taxes on the wealthy.
Ryan's plan calls for across-the-board tax cuts, including for businesses, corporations and the nation's wealthiest.
He compares Canada's corporate tax rate of 16 percent to a business owner in Wisconsin paying 35 percent.
“They win, we lose, and we don't get jobs. There's a belief that we can just keep raising tax rates on the wealthy, and that's going to pay for all this,” said Ryan.
Ryan's budget also turns responsibility for Medicaid management and reform over to individual states, which he says will encourage innovation. Medicaid provides health care to about 60 million low-income families with children, and nursing home care to seniors and people with disabilities nationwide.
“Let's reform health care with the patient and their doctor as the nucleus of the system, not some distant formula or bureaucrat,” said Ryan. Medicaid is already second-class health care. You're immediately thought of as somebody getting an inferior system.”
Kelly Hardy, director of health policy for Children Now in Oakland, Calif., said the cuts would have a disastrous impact on the 3.5 million children receiving Medicaid and Medi-Cal coverage in California. Many of those children are from working families unable to afford health care insurance.
“We are innovating as much as we can. California has always been the testing ground for delivering care more cost effectively,” she said. “The idea that somehow the states can find amazing ways to solve this problem is a red herring. These cuts affect real children and real families.”
According to “Jobs at Risk,” a report released by Families USA, an organization that promotes affordable health care, shifting more costs for Medicaid and Medicare to the states and families will have a devastating human toll and will lead to increased unemployment.
According to the report, even the smallest proposed Medicaid cuts of 5 percent would cost states thousands of jobs and further damage their economies. The potential number of lost jobs includes more than 28,000 in California, 18,000 in Texas, 11,000 in Florida, 9,000 in Illinois, 5,820 in Georgia, and nearly 5,000 in Tennessee.
Eric Mann, director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, which advocates for working-class families and communities, said Ryan's budget paints a future that resembles something from Charles Dickens more than from Franklin Roosevelt.
“I would call this plan the road to cruelty,” said Mann.
2011 © Equal Voice for America's Families Newspaper