It’s not a wonderful life for many

Girl Working in Box Factory, Tampa, FL - 1909

Girl Working in Box Factory, Tampa, FL – 1909

Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” is relevant these days with many in Congress playing the role of Scrooge before he was visited by the Christmas spirits. Dickens was greatly concerned about the plight of children forced to work under dreadful conditions and about the lives of the poor.

Pope Francis recently echoed these ideas when he expressed concern about unfettered capitalism. The Pope also called on world leaders to address poverty and growing inequality. Specifically, he said:

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. …”

This description applies to many of us, particularly to many in Congress. For example, the recent budget compromise allows emergency unemployment benefits for 1.3 million to expire. Millions more will lose their federal or state unemployment benefits in 2014. Future pension benefits for federal workers and veterans will also be reduced.

In addition, in the new farm bill, Congress is likely to push for cuts in food stamps instead of reducing or eliminating tax subsidies to giant agricultural corporations.

Unsurprisingly, Congress is again targeting Social Security and Medicare for cuts. These successful programs have kept millions from falling into dire poverty. Perhaps surprising to some people, President Obama has expressed a willingness to accept cuts in these programs.

Congress has refused to raise the minimum wage, a wage that has failed to keep pace with inflation. Currently the national minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Adjusted for inflation, this level is far below the minimum wage level of the late 1960s as well as being below the levels from 1956 to 1985. To be comparable to the level in the late 1960s, the minimum wage today would be close to $11 per hour.

Congress has also worked hard to restore the corporate welfare for the military-industrial complex. Congress throws money at this sector for weapons that are not needed or useful in dealing with non-state actors. Some of these tens to hundreds of billions in corporate welfare would be better spent by the badly under-funded Veterans Administration to help returning veterans prepare for reentry into society. Partly due to lack of extensive preparation, many veterans are, in effect, discarded by society. Many with PTSD and other problems are not adequately treated and join the ranks of the homeless and unemployed. We owe them so much more.

Note this budget compromise ignores the possibility of increasing revenue by closing corporate tax loopholes or by increasing the highest marginal tax rates. These higher rates would impact only the super wealthy, folks who would hardly notice these extra taxes. Instead, Congress chooses to cut incomes for the rest of us, incomes that are often already stretched beyond the breaking point for too many. Obama will likely go along with this mean and heartless approach.

Clearly, congressional and White House actions play a major role in increasing poverty and inequality. Contact your representatives and voice your opposition to cuts in these programs. I think Dickens and Pope Francis would say “bah, humbug” to these politicians.

Ron Forthofer

Ron Forthofer Ph.D. is retired Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston, Texas; former Green Party candidate for Congress and for Governor of Colorado 

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