In his radio address and press conferences this week, President Bush highlighted the Senate debate and vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. He didn't mention that Congress is also geared up to repeal the estate tax -- and hand a staggering trillion-dollar benefit to the richest of Americans.
Similarly, the president has been touting the "success" of his economic plans -- profits up, stocks up, CEO salaries up. He has not mentioned that the Conference of Mayors reports rising hunger and homelessness in our cities. Or that wages for most Americans aren't keeping up with prices.
The administration, desperate to shore up its own base, is back to posturing on symbolic issues -- a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, a constitutional amendment on burning the flag -- and throwing money at the affluent who pay for the party. Meanwhile, the poor are simply ignored. The cities abandoned. Working people slighted.
Bush's budget simply abandons the cities. He would cut spending on a range of programs that go to the poor, the elderly and the disabled -- Medicaid, education, day care, home-heating assistance, special food assistance. He says this is vital to bring down the deficits. At the same time, he insists on new tax cuts -- largely for the very wealthy -- that add more to the deficit than the cuts for the poor save. And he demands increases in military spending and homeland-security spending -- even while cutting the programs for the poor.
The estate-tax repeal is particularly preposterous. With deficits already as far as the eye can see, the president wants to give the very, very wealthy a tax cut worth about $300 billion over five years. The tax break goes to the one family in 200 (the wealthiest 0.5 percent) that pays any estate tax at all.
Bush and the Republican Congress seem to believe that America's problem is that the rich are too burdened and the poor have too much support. That America's military is weak, while its cities are strong.
The reality, of course, is the reverse. The rich have captured most of the gains of the last decades. From 1979 to 2003, the Congressional Budget Office shows that the income -- after taxes -- of the richest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled, to more than $700,000 per year. The income for middle Americans rose only by about $6,000, to $44,800 per year. The income for the poorest 20 percent rose all of $600 over 24 years.
Our military now spends merely as much as the rest of the world combined spends on its military. The United States spends more on intelligence alone than any other country spends on its entire military. Our military is strong, but our cities are in trouble. Cities across the country are facing rising hunger and homelessness, a growing shortage of affordable housing, overcrowded schools, underpaid teachers, inadequate health care, an aged and declining infrastructure.
Next week, at the RainbowPush Coalition Conference in Chicago, we will highlight the alternative federal budget of the Congressional Black Caucus. It shows that if we take back the tax cuts given to affluent Americans, we can make vital investments in education, health care, hunger elimination and day care -- and still balance the budget over time. We could double the education budget by eliminating unneeded Cold War weapons systems and still maintain a military without rival.
A nation that increases spending on war and reduces investment in education, a nation that rolls back taxes on the wealthy and cuts back help for the elderly, the disabled, the impoverished, is a nation that has lost its way. Cities -- and urban poverty -- have been off the agenda of both parties, in spite of the fine oratory after Katrina. The result is a deepening desperation and a deepening anger. Will America police the world while cutting support for police on its own streets? Will it build schools in Baghdad and not in Baltimore? These are fateful choices.
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel economist, projects that the war in Iraq will cost over $1 trillion. Meanwhile, the Bush budget would cut funding for cops on the street, for child care, for health care for poor children. We're making profound choices in the dark, distracted by our fears and forgetful of our values. We will pay a heavy price for this.
2006 Chicago Sun Times