Dear Super Committee

October 27, 2011


By Jenice R. Robinson and Hannah Matthews

Evidence of how poorly the nation's families are faring is omnipresent. Earlier this week, news outlets reported on Brookings Institution data showing poverty increased 53 percent in the suburbs. The Congressional Budget Office on Tuesday reported that in the last 30 years, income skyrocketed a whopping 275 percent for the top 1 percent of households, but grew only by 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent.

Time and again, we hear stories about how many people are falling into poverty and are jobless or settling for part-time work or jobs paying significantly less than their previous salaries, yet Washington is not getting anything done on behalf of struggling families. And the tone of the debate in Congress suggests that lawmakers aren't going to address the situation with the urgent focus it deserves.

Lawmakers made a decision much earlier this year to focus public conversation on the national debt in lieu of jobs, increasing poverty, and the sluggish economic recovery. Now that the end of the year is fast approaching, much public policy debate is focused on pending recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, informally known as the Super Committee, which is tasked with cutting an additional $1.5 trillion from the deficit over the next decade.

Experts' opinions vary on whether Congress has to address the nation's deficit at this moment in time and with such drastic cuts. We're happy to leave that piece of the debate to economists. But we do question why, in the face of mounds of data and abundant anecdotal evidence demonstrating that far too many families are struggling, all policymakers are not more sharply focused on providing short-term relief and long-term solutions to address poverty and inequality and put people back to work?

Wednesday, the Super Committee held a public hearing to discuss discretionary programs (non-security and security), which includes spending for programs ranging from education to workforce development to transportation and infrastructure. For low-income families, discretionary programs provide child care so that parents can go to work and young children can develop the skills they need to thrive in life. They provide access to higher education and job training for low-skilled workers to improve their success in the labor market. And importantly, many of these programs promote opportunity and help alleviate poverty. 

The bipartisan committee's public facing message (they held a hearing on revenue and tax reform in September) has demonstrated an understanding that deficit reduction can't be accomplished solely by cutting domestic programs, but the conversation among policymakers seems to belie that notion. House and Senate Republicans repeatedly have said they will not vote for any package that includes reforms such as increases in taxes on millionaires and closing corporate tax loopholes. They argue that Washington doesn't have a taxing problem so much as it has a spending problem, a message that comes from an underlying philosophy that government doesn't work.

Our colleague, Jodie Levin-Epstein, wrote a compelling piece in September about the invisible hand of government and how it can work when we let it. "As much as poverty has grown, it would have been worse without the government playing a role," she wrote.

The current economic environment requires government to work, and policymakers to have insight and empathy for what ordinary Americans need during this time of high unemployment and increasing poverty. Instead, we have policymakers sticking their heels in the mud, publicly stating that a balanced approach to deficit reduction that includes tax increases is off the table, and even refusing to act on or offer viable alternatives to a comprehensive jobs bill.

It's time for action in Washington, and that action should reflect understanding of ordinary people's needs and what is necessary to make this country better. So many struggling families cannot be an acceptable norm for this very wealthy country. Job creation must be a priority for policymakers. With so much evidence that the rich are not only doing fine, but getting richer every year, increasing taxes on the wealthiest among us rightly is a part of the solution.

Washington's problem is not spending and taxing. It's problem is a failure to understand that real economic recovery and growth that benefits the country as a whole and families at all levels will only come when comprehensive policy solutions are put on the table-solutions that take a balanced approach in raising taxes, reducing spending, reducing deficits and sustaining the vital hand of government for those in need. 




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