Changing Our National Priorities

There are three major trends in American society that must be addressed when the Senate next week debates the federal budget. First, the United States has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major nation in the industrialized world, and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is growing wider. Second, it is a national disgrace that we have, by far, the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth. More than 18 percent of our kids live in poverty. Third, year after year, we have had record-breaking deficits and our national debt will soon be $10 trillion. That is a grossly unfair burden to leave to our kids and grandchildren. It also is economically unsustainable.

I plan to offer an amendment that addresses these issues, to change our national priorities, and to move this country in a very different direction than where we have been going in the last seven years.

According to the latest available statistics from the Internal Revenue Service, the top 1 percent of Americans earned significantly more income in 2005 than the bottom 50 percent. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently reported that the wealthiest 1 percent saw total income rise by $180,000 in 2005. That is more than the average middle-class family makes in three years. The CBO also found that the total share of after-tax income going to the top 1 percent hit the highest level on record, while the middle class and working families received the smallest share of after-tax income on record.

Meanwhile, while the rich have become much richer, nearly 5 million Americans have slipped out of the middle class and into poverty over the past seven years, including over 1 million of our children.

We have a moral responsibility to put children ahead of millionaires and billionaires. That is why, during the Senate's consideration of the budget resolution, I will offer an amendment to restore the top income tax bracket to 39.6 percent for households earning more than $1 million a year.

Restoring the top income tax bracket for people making more than $1 million to what it was in 2000 would increase revenue by $32.5 billion over the next three years, according to the Joint Tax Committee, including $10.8 billion next year alone.

I would devote that revenue the needs of our children; job creation; and deficit reduction.

Instead of giving $32.5 billion in tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, my amendment would, over the next three years, provide:

  • $10 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help about 7 million children with disabilities and, in the process, relieve pressure on local property taxpayers.
  • $5 billion for Head Start -- a program which has been cut by more than 11 percent since 2002. Today, less than half of all eligible children are enrolled in Head Start. Only about 3 percent of all eligible children are enrolled in Early Head Start. My amendment would begin to correct this situation.
  • $4 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant. Today, due to inadequate funding, only about one in seven eligible children are able to receive federal child care assistance. Already, 250,000 fewer children receive child care assistance today than in 2000.
  • $3 billion for school construction. According to the most recent estimates, schools across the country have a $100 billion backlog in badly-needed school repairs. Investing $3 billion is a small, but important step to help repair crumbling schools across the country and, in the process, create tens of thousands of jobs for painters, carpenters, electricians, and construction workers.
  • $4 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program so that low-income families with children, seniors on fixed incomes, and persons with disabilities will be able to stay warm in the winter. After adjusting for energy prices and inflation, the heating assistance program has been cut by 34.5 percent or $1.3 billion compared to 2002. My amendment would begin to reverse this trend.
  • $3 billion for food stamps, so that we can begin to reduce the growing number of children and adults living with food insecurity. x
  • $3 billion to reduce the deficit.

This amendment is a fiscally responsible way to reduce childhood poverty, address an income gap greater than at any time since the Roaring Twenties, and lower our deficit.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, is a member of the Senate Budget Committee.

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