Op-Ed, 632 words

Let’s Strengthen our Safety Net

Karen Dolan

Most of us have friends, neighbors, or family members who have lost jobs, income, and even their homes in this Great Recession. Or we have our own personal stories of increased hardship since the economic meltdown began in 2008.

The Census just released data that illustrates the extent of the devastation. Poverty spiked in 2009. One in seven Americans–a record high of 43.6 million people–was poor last year. Children, single mothers, blacks, and Latinos are being hit the hardest.

The number of Americans lacking health insurance also reached a record high last year of 51 million, yet Congress has cut government subsidies to health coverage (COBRA) for the 14 million of us who have lost our jobs. This summer, lawmakers slashed almost $12 billion from the food stamp program that helped feed the more than one in five of our children who go to bed hungry in America. The House and Senate also failed to extend state job subsidies, which have put 250,000 low-income Americans to work in jobs that would not otherwise exist.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of lawmakers are insisting on retaining tax cuts for America’s wealthiest families, those living comfortably on over a quarter of a million dollars a year.

This is reckless. Their riches won’t trickle down to the rest of us. Economists have repeatedly found that the wealthy save their tax cut money instead of pumping it back into the economy. Polls show that most Americans oppose extending the costly Bush tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. But enough politicians on Capitol Hill are hell-bent on it to stall our chances at recovery.

Yes, most of the obstructionists in Congress are Republicans, but Senate Democrats haven’t used their majority and leadership status to keep effective, critical safety-net supports from dying on the Senate floor or in committee. These aren’t partisan issues and we can reverse this trend. Our nation can embrace the values of equality and decency.

Here’s how: We can demand policies that create an economy that works for all us, not just for the very rich.

Most crucially, let’s get a robust public jobs program because small and private businesses are being too slow to hire. Public jobs can be created quickly and directly employ the unemployed and underemployed. The Jobs for America Now Act in Congress provides funds for states and localities.

We also need to extend the emergency subsidized jobs program for low-income workers. The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Emergency Fund has put 250,000 people to work. If Congress doesn’t extend this effective temporary jobs program by the end of September, these jobs and their income disappear.

Reinstating and bolstering emergency stimulus funds for food stamps and COBRA, retaining and extending the unemployment benefits that kept 3.3 million more people from sinking below the poverty line in 2009 are also key, along with foreclosure relief that enables distressed homeowners rent their homes rather than lose them, thereby averting the downward spiral into poverty.

We have remnants of a safety net originally designed to buffer extreme hardship in hard economic times such as these. But millions of Americans are falling through it. We can afford to reverse this poverty tidal wave. Allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to simply expire as they are slated to do would save $43 billion per year. We can easily place a very small financial transactions tax–one penny on every $4 traded in speculative financial transactions– and raise almost $150 billion. We can end overseas tax havens and save another $100 billion per year. And we can slash our bloated military spending.

Realigning our budget priorities would restore our nation to the kind of country we all want to live in, with a decent standard of living for all. We all deserve well-paying jobs, affordable health care, and a safety net in times of high unemployment and economic hardship.

Karen Dolan, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, was a co-author of the IPS report Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net Is Failing Americans and How to Fix It. www.ips-dc.org