America's pressing moral dilemma

As Republicans try to cut more benefits for the poor, Obama needs to rebut them on ethical grounds

Topics: Republican Party, Barack Obama,

America's pressing moral dilemma(Credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

We dodged another shut-down bullet, but only until November 18. That’s when the next temporary bill to keep the government going runs out. House Republicans want more budget cuts as their price for another stopgap spending bill.

Among other items, Republicans are demanding major cuts in a nutrition program for low-income women and children. The appropriation bill the House passed June 16 would deny benefits to more than 700,000 eligible low-income women and young children next year.

What kind of country are we living in?

More than one in three families with young children is now living in poverty (37 percent, to be exact) according to a recent analysis of Census data by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies. That’s the highest percent on record. The Agriculture Department says nearly one in four young children (23.6) lives in a family that had difficulty affording sufficient food at some point last year.

We’re in the worst economy since the Great Depression — with lower-income families and kids are bearing the worst of it — and what are Republicans doing? Cutting programs Americans desperately need to get through it.

Medicaid is also under assault. Congressional Republicans want to reduce the federal contribution to Medicaid by $771 billion over next decade and shift more costs to states and low-income Americans.

It gets worse. Most federal programs to help children and lower-income families are in the so-called “non-defense discretionary” category of the federal budget. The congressional super-committee charged with coming up with $1.5 trillion of cuts eight weeks from now will almost certainly take a big whack at this category because it’s the easiest to cut. Unlike entitlements, these programs depend on yearly appropriations.

Even if the super-committee doesn’t agree (or even if they do, and Congress doesn’t approve of their proposal) an automatic trigger will make huge cuts in domestic discretionary spending.

It gets even worse. Drastic cuts are already underway at the state and local levels. Since the fiscal year began in July, states no longer receive about $150 billion in federal stimulus money — money that was used to fill gaps in state budgets over the last two years.

The result is a downward cascade of budget cuts — from the federal government to state governments and then to local governments — that are hurting most Americans but kids and lower-income families in particular.



So far this year, 23 states have reduced education spending. According to a survey of city finance officers released Tuesday by the National League of Cities, half of all American cities face cuts in state aid for education.

As housing values plummet, local property tax receipts are down. That means even less money for schools and local family services. So kids are getting larger class sizes, reduced school hours, shorter school weeks, cuts in pre-Kindergarten programs (Texas has eliminated pre-Kindergarten for 100,000 children), even charges for textbooks and extra-curricular activities.

Meanwhile the size of America’s school-age population keeps growing notwithstanding. Between now and 2015, an additional 2 million kids are expected to show up in our schools.

Local family services are being cut or terminated. Tens of thousands of social workers have been laid off. Cities and counties are reducing or eliminating their contributions to Head Start, which provides early childhood education to the children of low-income parents.

All this would be bad enough if the economy were functioning normally. For these cuts to happen now is morally indefensible.

Yet Republicans won’t consider increasing taxes on the rich to pay for what’s needed — even though the wealthiest members of our society are richer than ever, taking home a bigger slice of total income and wealth than in seventy-five years, and paying the lowest tax rates in three decades.

The President’s modest proposals to raise taxes on the rich — limiting their tax deductions, ending the Bush tax cut for incomes over $250,000, and making sure the rich pay at the same rate as average Americans — don’t come close to paying for what American families need.

Marginal tax rates should be raised at the top, and more tax brackets should be added for incomes over $500,000, over $1,500,000, over $5 million. The capital gains tax should be as high as that on ordinary income.

Wealth over $7.2 million should be subject to a 2 percent surtax. After all, the top one half of 1 percent now owns over 28 percent of the nation’s total wealth. Such a tax on them would yield $70 billion a year. According to an analysis by Yale’s Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, that would generate at least half of $1.5 trillion deficit-reduction target over ten years set for the supercommittee.

Another way to raise money would be through a tiny tax (one-half of one percent) tax on financial transactions. This would generate $200 billion a year, and hardly disturb Wall Street’s casino at all. (The European Commission is about to unveil such a tax there.)

All this can be done, but only if Americans understand what’s really at stake here.

When Republicans recently charged the President with promoting “class warfare,” he answered it was “just math.” But it’s more than math. It’s a matter of morality.

Republicans have posed the deepest moral question of any society: whether we’re all in it together. Their answer is we’re not.

President Obama should proclaim, loudly and clearly, we are.

Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written 13 books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His new movie "Inequality for All" is in Theaters. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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