Remember when the President had the revelation that there were poor people in this country and announced that “we have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action”? Well, the latest response some Republicans have mustered on behalf of the poor in the wake of the hurricane is indeed bold: blaming aid to the poor for poverty itself. That’s right, as these clever conservatives tell it, the poor people you saw on TV and Bush glimpsed in his “disaster highlights” DVD have food stamps, Medicaid and welfare to thank for their situation. The problem with such aid, according to this logic, is that it creates dependence. Consider those in Louisiana, where welfare benefits averaged less than $240 per month last year, who didn’t have the cash to buy a bus ticket out because the storm hit after their benefits checks ran out. Way too dependent, according to these Republicans. Their solution? Slash benefits further.
Even before the storm–as the Census was coming out with the news that there were a million new poor people in the country, that household incomes failed to increase for the fifth straight year and that income inequality was at near all-time highs–Congress was eyeing Medicaid, food stamps and student loans as it sought $35 billion in spending cuts.
The storm only made things worse for the poor, costing an estimated 400,000 jobs and leaving as many as 900,000 people homeless and scattered across the country, often with only a few dollars in their pockets. Without jobs or cash, many are unable to get healthcare; so far, more than half of Katrina evacuees from Louisiana who have applied for Medicaid have been rejected. Given this devastating new reality–and, perhaps more important, the fact that the whole world has been witness to it–many thought Republicans would not dare try to cut aid for the neediest.
They were very wrong. Not only is safety-net spending still on the Senate chopping block, the GOP House leadership has gone even further. At press time it was unclear whether House Republicans would officially change the budget resolution, but Speaker Dennis Hastert was pressing committees to come up with additional “savings” from Medicaid, Head Start, childcare and foster care, bringing the total to at least $50 billion over five years. And while the Senate has responded to pressure from religious groups and backed away from additional cuts to food stamps, the Administration and Congressional Republicans are still looking to squeeze more money out of the program.
“Our nation was hit with the worst natural disaster on record, and everything changed in an instant,” is how House Budget Committee chair Jim Nussle explained the belt-tightening. But clearly the post-Katrina Republican strategy–cuts, cuts and cuts, along with the reprise of such Reagan-era concepts as enterprise zones–wasn’t formed in an instant. It’s a repackaging of the Administration’s long-held hostility toward entitlement programs. What else could explain its opposition to bipartisan legislation proposed by Senate Republican Charles Grassley that would grant Medicaid coverage to all Katrina evacuees, temporarily expand unemployment benefits and provide welfare benefits to those who fled the storm to other states? The White House’s fear, which Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt put into words, is that it would create “a massive new federal program” and, heaven forbid, “a new Medicaid entitlement.”
Of course, House Republicans and the White House haven’t found the looming crisis worrisome enough to change their plans to carry out the $70 billion tax cuts passed earlier this year. Already, cuts made in 2001 and 2003, which mostly benefit those making more than $1 million, are netting those families an average of $103,000 a year. Two more tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the very wealthy are scheduled to go into effect next year. And the war budget remains intact, with another $50 billion for Iraq just authorized by Congress.
After the cuts to Medicaid and food stamps are finalized at the end of October, Republicans are likely to turn their attention to the welfare bill. Childcare funding has been a major sticking point in the three years the legislation has been stalled in Congress. In the past, even conservative workfare advocates have backed increases in such funding, noting that parents can’t climb out of poverty unless they have a safe place for their children. But this time, whether through the slash-and-burn process known as budget reconciliation or through a new law, the GOP leadership is poised to ratchet up work requirements for women on welfare with no increase whatsoever in childcare funds.
The good news is that there is mounting, vocal opposition to gouging these programs while preserving tax cuts for the rich. Every Democrat present voted against the Congressional budget resolution in April that called for $35 billion in cuts. And since the storm even some moderate Republicans have signaled their unwillingness to go along. Senate Democrats have asked majority leader Bill Frist to put off cuts in spending. And a coalition of activist groups are circulating a petition against tax breaks and budget cuts. Time is tight before Congress finalizes the budget, but as the Administration and House Republicans seize on the storm as an excuse to rip more holes in the safety net, they’re showing us it’s never too late to change budget priorities. After all, as Jim Nussle says, everything can change in an instant.