By CHARLES M. BLOW – New York Times.
Government is not the enemy. Not always. Don’t believe that right-wing malarkey.
In fact, for millions of Americans down on their luck and at the end of their rope, they can quickly find that government is their last friend left. Governmental assistance can prevent the certainty of a hungry night and a homeless tomorrow. It can mean the difference between the comfort of stability and the ravages of poverty.
This function is now more important than ever, even as it is under more pressure than ever.
We learned this week that not only are there more poor people in America than had been previously reported, but that the only thing keeping millions more out of poverty are the very same social safety net programs that many Republicans despise.
For decades, experts on both sides of the poverty debate have complained that the official government measure is flawed because it doesn’t account for measures like benefits from government programs, health care costs or taxes.
So, to address those concerns, the Census Bureau this week released a Supplemental Poverty Measure, or S.P.M. The new measure changed the composition of the poor but found that it was a larger group — the official 2010 poverty rate was 15.2 percent, but the S.P.M. rate was 16 percent.
Even more important, the report highlighted the role government programs play in mitigating it. Many of these programs were expanded under the Obama administration with the much-maligned stimulus package. Now many of those expansions are scheduled to expire, and a new crop of callous Republicans threatens to not just trim the fat but to cut the meat.
For instance, the report shows that if the earned income tax credit, a refundable tax credit for low-to-moderate-income workers designed to offset Social Security taxes and encourage work, was not included in the S.P.M., the poverty rate would jump from 16 percent to 18 percent. For children, it would jump from 18.2 percent to 22.4 percent.
The stimulus bill increased the credit for people with three or more children and for married people so they would not have to face a “marriage penalty.” Those increases will expire next year. Furthermore, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Tax VOX blog points out, almost all of the Republican presidential candidates’ economic plans would “cut back or eliminate refundable tax credits.”
As for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for food stamps, the report says that without it, the overall poverty rate would move from 16 percent to 17 percent and for children it would move from 18.2 percent to 21.2 percent.
The stimulus bill increased financing for food stamps, but those increases are being phased out. And, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has pointed out, the Paul Ryan Republican budget presented earlier this year proposed slashing nutrition assistance by $127 billion over 10 years.
Obama’s stimulus package may not have provided the jolt to the economy that the country wanted and needed, but it no doubt kept a jobs and poverty crisis from becoming a catastrophe. The administration’s inability to effectively convey that point is its own catastrophe.
A vast majority of people now believe that Obama’s economic policies have failed. After Republicans hammered that point for so long, most people can only see what didn’t get better, not what didn’t get worse. A Gallup poll released on Wednesday found that 67 percent of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy.
This level of dissatisfaction makes people open to his cartoonish competitors’ Grinch-ish alternatives to economic policy, which invariably means the rich would get more and pay less and the poor would pay more get less. At Wednesday’s debate, Michele Bachmann said that everyone should pay at least “the price of two Happy Meals a year” in taxes. And this is a candidate for president. Of The United States.
The Tax Policy Center has found that Herman Cain’s now-famous 9-9-9 would cause 84 percent of families to pay higher taxes. Even After Cain changed his tune and said “if you’re at or below the poverty level, your plan isn’t “9-9-9, it’s 9-0-9,” an expert with the Tax Policy Center told NPR that “we’d still expect to see close to 84 percent of families being made worse off by the Cain plan.”
In Wednesday’s debate, Mitt Romney reiterated, with a straight face, that he prefers to let the foreclosure process happen instead of hold off “the normal market process,” or in plain English: help people to stay in their homes (as the Obama administration is attempting to do).
The lack of empathy for the poor and suffering on the part of the right is nothing short of breathtaking.
And it comes as Gallup reported on Thursday that, “Americans’ access to basic needs is now at the lowest level recorded since Gallup and Healthways began tracking it in January 2008.” It explained that, “the Basic Access Index — which comprises 13 measures, including Americans’ ability to afford food, housing, and health care — declined to a record-low score of 81.2 in October. This means Americans’ access to basic needs, though still high in an absolute sense, is now worse than it was throughout the economic crisis and recession.”
And a Brookings Institution report released last Thursday said that “after declining in the 1990s, the population in extreme-poverty neighborhoods — where at least 40 percent of individuals live below the poverty line — rose by one-third from 2000 to 2005-9.”
The Obama administration is far from perfect, and government is not beyond becoming bloated and being abused, but right is right and truth is truth: government can play a very positive role in protecting the less-well-off from the interests of the more-well-off, and this administration’s view of government is much more benevolent than those of the people who are seeking to unseat it.
That’s worth remembering.