Mugging the Needy

April 3, 2003
By BOB HERBERT

I had wanted today's column to be about the events in
Tulia, Tex., where a criminal justice atrocity is at long
last beginning to be corrected.

(For those who don't know, prosecutors are moving to
overturn the convictions of everyone seized in an
outlandish drug sting conducted by a single wacky
undercover officer.)

But there is another issue crying out for immediate
attention. With the eyes of most Americans focused on the
war, the Bush administration and its allies in Congress are
getting close to agreeing on a set of budget policies that
will take an awful toll on the poor, the young, the
elderly, the disabled and others in need of assistance and
support from their government.

The budget passed by the House is particularly gruesome. It
mugs the poor and the helpless while giving unstintingly to
the rich. This blueprint for domestic disaster has even
moderate Republicans running for cover.

The House plan offers the well-to-do $1.4 trillion in tax
cuts, while demanding billions of dollars in cuts from
programs that provide food stamps, school lunches, health
care for the poor and the disabled, temporary assistance to
needy families - even veterans' benefits and student loans.


An analysis of the House budget by the Center on Budget and
Policy Priorities found that its proposed cuts in child
nutrition programs threaten to eliminate school lunches for
2.4 million low-income children.

Under the House plan, Congress would be required to cut
$265 billion from entitlement programs over 10 years. About
$165 billion would come from programs that assist
low-income Americans.

This assault on society's weakest elements has been almost
totally camouflaged by the war, which has an iron grip on
the nation's attention.

The House budget does not dictate the specific cuts that
Congress would be required to make. In its analysis, the
center assumed (as did the House Budget Committee) that the
various entitlement programs would be cut by roughly the
same percentages. If one program were to be cut by a
somewhat smaller percentage, another would have to be cut
more.

The analysis found that in the year in which the budget
sliced deepest:

"The cut in Medicaid, if achieved entirely by reducing the
number of children covered, would lead to the elimination
of health coverage for 13.6 million children."

"The cut in foster care and adoption programs, if achieved
by reducing the number of children eligible for foster care
assistance payments, would lead to the elimination of
benefits for 65,000 abused and neglected children."

"The cut in the food stamp program, if achieved by
lowering the maximum benefit, would lead to a reduction in
the average benefit from an already lean 91 cents per meal
to 84 cents."

When's the last time one of the plutocrats in Congress
waded through a meal that cost 84 cents?

The Senate budget is not as egregious. It calls for a total
of about $900 billion in tax cuts, and there is no demand
for cuts in entitlement programs. But it is not a
reasonable budget. In fact, there's something obscene about
a millionaires' club like the Senate proposing close to a
trillion dollars in tax cuts for the rich while the country
is already cutting social programs, running up huge budget
deficits and fighting a war in the Middle East.

At least in the House budget the first - if not the worst -
of the cuts are in plain view. In the Senate plan the
inevitable pain of the Bush budget policies remains
concealed.

"There is a significant human toll in the Senate budget,
but it's in the future," said Robert Greenstein, the
center's executive director. "What I mean is that given the
deficits we're already in, you can't keep doing tax cuts
like this - you can't keep cutting your revenue base -
without it inevitably leading to sharp budget cuts."

House and Senate conferees are now trying to resolve the
differences in the two budget proposals. They will do all
they can to minimize the public relations hit that is bound
to come when you're handing trainloads of money to the rich
while taking food off the tables of the poor. So you can
expect some dismantling of the House proposal.

But no matter what they do, the day of reckoning is not far
off. The budget cuts are coming. In voodoo economics, the
transfer of wealth is from the poor and the working classes
to the rich. It may not be pretty, but it's the law.   

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company