What the Bush tax cut could have bought

That $330 billion could have covered every uninsured child in the country and paid for millions of teachers and child-care workers. Instead it's going to the richest Americans.

Published May 29, 2003 7:55PM (EDT)

This has been a trying week for those with math anxiety, not to mention anyone who, owing either to their fear of numbers or their lack of millions of dollars of disposable income, may be struggling to understand the impact of the tax-cut bill that President Bush signed into law Wednesday. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, for instance, said the new measure, which includes $330 billion in tax breaks over the next 10 years, would create "more than a million jobs." Many economists dispute Fleischer's analysis, but even if it turned out to be true, given the overall job loss during Bush's administration -- 2.7 million jobs in the private sector alone -- it would still leave us in the red, job-wise.

In fact, it is in the red where the really impressive numbers reside. The day before the East Room signing ceremony, in a move unembellished by ceremony, Bush signed a bill that allows the federal government to borrow up to $7.4 trillion -- a $984 billion increase in the federal debt limit -- to cover the tab for the tax cuts. This year's deficit, after surpluses during the last four years of the Clinton administration, already is expected to exceed a whopping $300 billion.

According to Bush, the tax cuts will give tax relief to 136 million American taxpayers -- another impressive figure, but especially if you are the kind of American taxpayer who seeks relief from taxes on capital gains and corporate dividends. Some of the less advantaged -- especially those who have children, are married, or own small businesses -- will also get tidy sums. But universal relief, or even respite, is not part of this deal.

Meanwhile, every dollar sent back to an American taxpayer, however deserving, is one less dollar that can be spent to meet the nation's ever-growing needs. To facilitate a better understanding of what kind of relief, other than tax relief, this kind of money could buy, we have listed the price tags for some of the programs and projects that comprise the nation's basic domestic wish list. With that $330 billion, for instance, the president could have bought health insurance for all uninsured children, helped states erase their budget deficits, completed Superfund cleanup at the nation's worst toxic waste sites, and funded the new state and local emergency personnel the Homeland Security department says are needed in the war on terror -- and still had money left over.

Here's an itemized list of things the tax cut might have paid for. They are diverse, pressing, some would say essential -- not just to low-income Americans, but to many citizens who, having had a choice, might have directed their billions elsewhere.

Tax-cut total: $330 billion

Amount needed to provide health insurance for all 9.2 million currently uninsured children for one year: $13 billion

Amount needed to provide health insurance for all 41.2 million uninsured Americans, including children, for one year: $98 billion

Amount needed to close state budget gaps across the country: $78 billion

Amount needed to hire an additional 100,000 teachers to reduce class size, provide grants to repair 6,000 schools and assist with new-school construction, and provide additional math and reading help for over 9 million eligible low-income students: $300 billion

Amount needed to end homelessness for chronically homeless people within 10 years: $1.3 billion per year to create and sustain 150,000 units of permanent supportive housing

Amount needed by the Environmental Protection Agency to complete cleanups at high-priority toxic waste sites through the Superfund program: $92 million

Cost of Head Start for all 1.8 million children, up to 5 years old, who currently need but don't receive it: $25 billion

Cost of continuing to provide grants to potentially jeopardized regional poison control centers and maintain a toll-free poison information phone number between 2005 and 2009: $142 million

Cost of USDA testing of 12,500 cattle samples for mad cow disease, in addition to homeland security measures such as physical security upgrades at lab facilities and background investigation of workers: $21.7 million

Budgeted cost of continuing to enable states to meet energy emergencies due to extremes in temperature, either during severe cold weather in the winter or sustained heat waves in the summer: $1.7 billion

Cost of measures to improve food safety in 2003, including hiring additional FDA inspectors, and developing new ways for federal inspectors to detect food-borne illnesses in meat and poultry and determine the source of contamination: $101 million

Estimated homeland security costs for full support of state and local emergency personnel in their efforts to prevent and respond to acts of terrorism for three years: $12 billion

Cost of providing housing assistance nationwide for victims of domestic violence from 2004 through 2008: $100 million

Cost of hiring 100 new public-school teachers: $3.125 million

Cost of hiring 100 state child-care workers: $2.08 million

Cost of fully immunizing 100 children against preventable diseases: $64,433

Price of 250,000 new fire trucks: $56.2 billion

Identified funding needs for community-based services in the care and treatment of HIV/AIDS in 2002: $2 billion

Identified funding needs for HIV prevention and surveillance prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: $1 billion

Identified funding needs for HIV/AIDS research at the National Institutes of Health: $2.9 billion

Estimated cost of funding Older Americans Act programs for seniors -- such as transportation, delivered meals and elder abuse prevention -- for 10 years: $39 billion

Cost of providing needed assistive technology and durable medical equipment for 1 million individuals with disabilities for 10 years: $39 billion

Cost of compensating federal employees called to active duty in the uniformed services or National Guard for the difference between their civilian and military pay: $89 million over the 2004-2008 period

Yearly cost of direct treatment for mental illness in both the private and public sectors in the U.S.: $92 billion

Estimated cost of spending for countermeasures against smallpox, anthrax, botulinum toxin, plague and Ebola under Project BioShield: $5.6 billion between 2004 and 2013

Cost of 60 million doses of an improved smallpox vaccine: $900 million

Annual cost of providing services to foster children, including educational assistance, job placement, health services and room and board: $200 million

Amount needed to establish a National Housing Trust to provide communities with funds to build, rehabilitate and preserve 1.5 million units of affordable housing over the next 10 years: $5 billion

Cost, per recipient, of Job Corps, an education and training program benefiting disadvantaged youth and young adults: $17,000

Federal funding requested in 2004 to maintain the National Domestic Violence Hotline: $3 million

Federal funding requested in 2004 for the national Abandoned Infants Assistance program: $45 million

Cost of assisting states in covering the excess costs of providing special education services to children with disabilities: $8.9 billion

Annual cost of providing funding to public libraries through state formula grants so that libraries can promote wider access to learning and information: $1.6 billion between 2004 and 2009

Cost of providing grants for treatment, counseling and referral for runaway and homeless youth subjected to sexual abuse in 2003: $15 million

Annual cost of funding the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: $20 million


Children's Defense Fund
Physicians for a National Health Program
National Conference of State Legislatures
Fair Taxes For All, National Education Association
National Alliance to End Homelessness
Natural Resources Defense Council
Children's Defense Fund
Congressional Budget Office
United States Department of Agriculture
Administration for Children and Families
Food and Drug Administration
Fair Taxes For All
Congressional Budget Office
Children's Defense Fund
Children's Defense Fund
Children's Defense Fund
The National Priorities Project
Human Rights Campaign
Human Rights Campaign
Human Rights Campaign
Alliance for Retired Americans
Fair Taxes For All
Congressional Budget Office
National Mental Health Association
Congressional Budget Office
Congressional Budget Office
Administration for Children and Families
National Low Income Housing Coalition
Brookings Institution
Administration for Children and Families
Administration for Children and Families
Administration for Children and Families
Congressional Budget Office
Congressional Budget Office
Congressional Budget Office

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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By Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

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