How Quickly We Forget

Jun 29, 2011

By Jenice R. Robinson

More than 15 million people were unemployed at this time last year, with nearly half of them out of work for six months or more. One in eight relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) to eat. Food banks across the country reported demand so great they struggled to meet it. An increased number of families applied for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) so they could pay for basic needs. And in September 2010, Census released data revealing the greatest number of people (43.6 million, including one in four children) living in poverty since the bureau began keeping track.

Not much has changed since last year. Unemployment has declined but at 9.1 percent, it remains at generational highs. According to the Food Research and Action Center, today about one in seven receives food stamp benefits.

Stories of families' struggles and unemployment have fast faded from the headlines and been usurped by the deficit reduction debate. Instead of talking about the millions of families who are worse off now than they were before the recent recession began,  political discussions are focused on how much to cut from domestic, non-defense discretionary spending.  Instead of developing policies to put people back to work and debating how to address the declining middle class and growing income inequality, lawmakers are discussing how deeply they should cut poverty-alleviating programs.

How quickly we forget. We agree the nation must address its deficit in a real way. But the shift in political discourse doesn't change the fact the too many of us are poor, millions want a job but can't find one, and in this nation of plenty, far too many do not have enough to eat. Not only are poor families struggling, many in the middle are in a precarious state and one setback away from falling into poverty.

Cuts in domestic, discretionary programs will have real and lasting impact. They will hurt low-income people severely by squeezing funding for opportunity-promoting programs such as child care and early education to help children succeed in school, workforce development and adult education opportunities to help individuals get and retain jobs that provide for their families, and safety net programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF that support families during times of need.

Advocates are in an aggressive battle to make sure that lawmakers know how destructive cuts to human needs programs will be for the most vulnerable populations. CLASP is among 25 national, local and faith-based organizations that on Monday sent a formal letter to the White House and congressional leaders urging them to adhere to a bedrock principle: protect programs for low-income families and individuals and make sure that deficit reduction is achieved in a way that does not increase poverty. The letter noted that in the 1990s, lawmakers reduced the deficit while protecting programs for low-income people. View CLASP's resources on deficit reduction.

We are in an era of growing economic inequality. Households earning more than $100,000 per year, or the top 20 percent, received nearly half (49.4 percent) of all household income in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. The bottom 20 percent, or those living in poverty and earning less than $20,000, received only 3.4 percent.

It would be unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of vulnerable families who are already losing ground. Yet some lawmakers are drawing lines in the sand. They mention tough budget decisions but only in the context of cutting domestic programs that overwhelmingly benefit ordinary Americans. And while they are demanding program cuts, they refuse to end tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.

The wealthy and corporations are doing just fine and certainly in a better position than 43.6 million living in poverty and the millions more in low-income households to "share the sacrifice."  But even those who are struggling want access to opportunity. They want to work, contribute to the nation's growth and pay taxes. They don't want children to go hungry. They want a government that works as well for Main Street Americans as it does for the wealthy few.  The nation's policymakers are doing the public a disservice when they focus on program cuts without also talking about what this will mean in the short- and long-term for vulnerable families.

CLASP'S Executive Director Alan W. Houseman is among the signers of the letter to White House and Congress. He said, "We have to make tough choices about how the nation spends and raises money to keep the government functioning, but we also must consider deeper questions such as what kind of nation we want to be now and in the future."

Yes, we do.


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