Archive for Thursday, June 19, 2003

Bush policies benefit rich, ignore poor

June 19, 2003


— And now for some news from the stalled economy: Scorn is trending a wee bit up.

Not that long ago, scorn and its handmaidens -- disdain and neglect -- were pretty much reserved for the welfare poor. The working poor, by comparison, were publicly praised as Americans who "played by the rules." They were folks who warranted a helping hand.

But now the rules have officially changed. The line between the deserving and the undeserving poor has moved up a couple of notches on the socio-economic scale. You can now be unworthy even if you're employed. Indeed, by some accounts Americans become deserving -- of political attention, that is -- only when their wages rise enough to make them eligible for income taxes and therefore income tax cuts.

The two leading indicators of upscaling of scorn were the fates of tax cuts meant to help low-income families: the child tax credit and marriage penalty relief.

The child tax credit debacle began weeks ago, when Republicans expanded the credit for middle and well-off families -- and deliberately denied it to 6.5 million working poor families. This shouldn't have been a surprise coming from a party that gave $93,500 in tax cuts to million-a-year families.

But this time, about 12 million children in families with incomes between $10,500 and $26,625 were slated to lose stipends of up to $400. It took a rebellion by moderate Republicans to squeeze the provision back into the Senate bill. It took a public flap to make the president polish up his compassionate conservative campaign button and concur.

In the House of Representatives, however, Tom DeLay famously choked on the idea of giving "tax relief to people who don't pay income taxes." In a partisan snit, the House reluctantly restored the child credit tax into a $82 billion bill so bloated with tax cuts for the unneedy that it's worse for low-income families than no credit at all. The whole mess has landed in the House-Senate conference committee as fodder for a food fight.

Meanwhile, with much less attention, Congress also voted to speed up "marriage penalty relief" for higher-income families. Once again, low-income families were deliberately excluded from the "relief."

Wedding bells may be relatively more expensive for low-income workers who sacrifice other federal benefits at the altar. But Republicans worried more about nipping the nuptials of the well-to-do wedders.

And if you need more leading indicators of scorn for the working poor, look at welfare reform. A new bill reauthorizing TANF -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- is going to raise the work requirements for parents. But where are the new allotments of child care money for those who follow the path from welfare poverty to working poverty?

All in all, the only government agency that seems to be paying attention to low-income families under the Bush administration is the IRS, bless its heart. It may be in an auditing slump but the agency is under orders to crack down on low-income Americans applying for the most important work incentive program, the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Next year, parents applying for EITC will face a new and stupefying set of IRS forms to prove they're caring for kids. In this upward trend, the government has turned from worrying about welfare cheats to worrying about working-poor cheats.

Of course, these are just details. As Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes, it isn't really the small tax stuff, even the child tax credit, that matters the most. The big picture is the bleakest. With a tax cut of $350 billion and more to come, we're running up huge debts as the baby boomers head for retirement. "These same low-income families," says Greenstein, "are likely to pay a price that dwarfs anything these tax cuts will provide."

Jim Wallis, who heads Call to Renewal, a religious coalition of compassionate progressives, says "budgets are moral documents that reveal our priorities." No one wants to hear the tax code read from the pulpit, but as Wallis preaches, "This budget is a disaster for poor families and a windfall for the rich. It is, to use my evangelical language, unbiblical."

Remember when The Wall Street Journal editorial page referred to low-income families as the "lucky duckies" who don't pay any income taxes? Today the only social policy of the Bush administration is tax cuts, the only citizens worthy of compassion are taxpayers who want to conserve their wealth, and it's all supposed to roll off a lucky duckie's back.

Check the graph on the national wall. We've gone from ignoring the welfare poor to ignoring the working poor. One thing you have to say about the Bush economy: Money may not trickle down but scorn sure percolates up.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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