You may have been as aghast as I was at some comments from right-wing tea party types in the audiences of the two recent Republican presidential debates. At one debate, audience members enthusiastically cheered the fact that Texas Governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry, has executed 234 people during his tenure. Then, at a debate sponsored by Tea Party Express, some loudly cheered “yeah!” in response to a debate moderator’s question about whether candidate Ron Paul would leave a young man without health care to die rather than to intervene with a federally sponsored health program. It seems the only federal monies the right wing in this country likes to see spent is for state-sponsored executions and subsidies for corporations and the wealthy.
Do you wonder if they actually know how desperate people are? Do the right wing, the extreme candidates, and the tea party policymakers who continue to advocate a dismantling of the social safety net in favor of tax breaks for oil companies and billionaires know the real state of economic distress in this country? Are they shielded from the reality of rising poverty in the United States by their own privilege, or are they rendered irrational and heartless by a distorted ideology that supports principles contrary to the fairness and equality to which our nation strives?
The Problem: Increasing Poverty and Inequality
The September 13 U.S. Census Bureau’s release of 2010 data on poverty, income and health insurance, really oughta serve as a slap in the face with a cold wet tea bag. Revealing an alarming downward trend which mirrors the right’s anti-people policy preferences, poverty in the United States is soaring and children are suffering the most. In the world’s wealthiest nation, over a quarter of all of our children aged 0-5 years are poor and overall poverty continues to rise at an alarming rate. The poverty rate grew from 14.3 percent in 2009 to 15.1 percent in 2010, and the number of people in poverty grew by 2.6 million, up from 43.6 million to 46.2 million. The poverty rate is the highest since 1993, and the number of people in poverty is the greatest since records began 52 years ago.
Further, the percentage of children in poverty nationally increased from 20.7 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2010. The number of children in poverty rose by 950,000, from 15.5 million to 16.4 million. Children are four times more likely to be poor in the United States than our seniors. And the median income of their parents is down. Median household income in 2010 declined from 2009 by $1,154, or 2.3 percent. Those in poverty are getting poorer and the middle class is shrinking.
The conservative right tends to use our children as excuses for deficit hysteria and for dismantling Medicaid and Social Security. Yet the cold hard reality is that our children are in need of more food, more family income, and more shelter, and are getting instead only more poverty and hunger. Dismantling social safety net programs under the guise of helping our children through decreasing their future debt burden is a cynical argument at best.
In truth, it is only our social safety net programs that kept millions more American children and adults out of poverty. Government programs such as unemployment insurance, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit on household income played a critical role in keeping the poverty rate from rising even more dramatically. In 2010, 3.9 million Americans, including 1.7 million children, were lifted out of poverty because of food stamps, while 3.2 million Americans were kept out of poverty by unemployment insurance benefits. Social Security provided a safety net from poverty to 20.3 million of us. Medicaid, the HalfInTen campaign tells us, provided health care to 48.6 million seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income children and families who may otherwise have had none. And, were Earned Income Tax Credit counted in the official poverty measure, it would show that the credit helped lift 5.4 million people out of poverty.
One final counter to right-wing nonsense about government spending impoverishing our children and our middle class. Although those lacking health insurance increased from 49 million in 2009 to 50 million in 2010, and employment-based health coverage continued to decline, children were protected from this downward trend because Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) covered them. And, the Obama health care reform act, so much maligned by the right wing, enabled 18-24 year-olds to actually increase their health coverage by 2.0 percentage points.
The Solutions: Green Public Jobs, Unions and Bringing War Dollars Home
Until the unemployed, especially the long-term unemployed, have jobs to return to, the trend of increasing poverty, hardship and inequality can only continue. We need a comprehensive federal jobs package and we need it, as the President says, “right now.” President Obama’s American Jobs Act, is a good start. It recognizes that we need public money invested in jobs that will not only employ people, but that will fix our crumbling infrastructure. It recognizes the obscene gap between the super-rich and the rest of us. It recognizes the value in saving the jobs of our valued teachers and first responders. It recognizes that this must be paid for from those who have benefited the most and sacrificed the least in this recession: the super-wealthy and the big corporations.
In order to make significant progress filling the 14-million job hole that we need to fill, we must go farther. The U.S. Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus also have some plans that will do just that. Key pieces of these plans are: the revival of American manufacturing, creation of a national infrastructure bank, jobs for youth, green industry development, support for labor organizing and higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.
Finally, if we were to bring home the billions of dollars now being spent in devastating and costly wars overseas, we could pay for the significant investments that must be made at home. These are investments that must be made if we maintain the hope of becoming a nation of shared prosperity in a world of shared prosperity. Note that in Afghanistan, we tax payers are paying $1 million per year per U.S. soldier. Consider that for that same money, we could bring that soldier home, employ her or him in a well-paying green job for $50,000 per year and similarly employ 19 more unemployed Americans.
In addition to this year’s price tag of $122 billion for war in Afghanistan, we may forget that we are still paying almost $50 billion just this year for the continuing war in Iraq, with almost 50,000 troops still there. Think of how that money could better be spent on jobs and income security for us at home. The National Priorities Project offers analysis of what we could instead be paying for at home to help raise our economy out of economic hardship. They point out that 42 states and the District of Columbia are facing serious budget shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2012 and that this year’s spending alone on the Afghanistan war would more than pay to fill the gaps in these state budgets, keeping and created desperately needed jobs and public benefits.
Yes We Can
President Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, Yes We Can, ought to be revived. There is a way out of this misery. Many millions are suffering unduly as the tea party and its ilk offer us only in cold cups of bitter tea while serving up fountains of champagne to the super-rich, Wall Street and big corporations. Don’t drink the tea, instead support the above ideas and get us working again and fight for our children to be well, healthy and able to participate in a thriving future.