Budgeting for the Living

We hear a lot of criticism these days about government spending. This is a primary concern for the Tea Party movement, and is a major focus in the wave of new conservative books and publications—from Representative Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap to America’s Future,” to recent books by Gingrich, Hannity, and Beck. This concern was nonexistent during the unprecedented spending of the Bush years. Moreover, in all of their fear-mongering, we only hear about the problem of “entitlements.” It is always a concern with too much spending that directly helps low income citizens. We never hear concerns from those who claim to be conservative about government spending that feeds our massive military industrial complex.The 2011 budget will total about $3.8 trillion. It has been estimated that $1 trillion of the budget goes to military or related spending. The U.S. spends as more than all other nations combined on defense an security. Some try to justify this spending by defending military-related jobs, or arguing the need for security against potential threats. Perhaps there these concerns are valid. But it is hypocritical for anyone to criticize government spending on “entitlements” while supporting superfluous “defense” spending.

Today, the U.S. has over 725 foreign military based in thirty-eight countries. This includes bases that were established in Germany and Japan after World War II. It is worth noting that one of Al Qaeda’s stated grievances is the presence of U.S. military bases within their sacred lands in Saudi Arabia. It seems that one of the best ways to fight terrorism is to scale back on our bases in the Middle-East. Instead, we are expanding permanent bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration cut taxes and social benefits, while increasing military spending, which effectively changed the U.S. from the world’s largest lender to the world’s largest debtor. In spite of the massive deficit spending of the Reagan years, the surpluses of the Clinton years, and the unprecedented debt of the Bush years, Republicans claim to be “fiscally responsible,” and still use the term “conservative” to describe themselves—all with a straight face.

In contrast to the $1 trillion that we are spending on “defense” each year, the U.S. spends roughly $750 billion on social spending. Much of this spending significantly benefits low-income U.S. citizens. Let’s look at where our taxes are going when it comes to social spending:

(1) $7.6 billion for Special Supplemental NutritionProgram for Women, Infants, and Children; (2) $71 billion for student aid programs, such as pell grants; (3) $116 billion from the Department of Labor on job training and counseling for dislocated workers and youth, as well as worker protection programs and unemployment insurance; (4) $133 billion on disability insurance; (5) $271 billion on Medicaid, healthcare services primarily for low-income children, blind or disabled, or seniors; (6) $11 billion for Children’s Health Insurance Program, providing low-cost (subsidized) insurance for families that make too much for Medicaid, but cannot afford health insurance; (7) $58 billion for the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees 60 programs that serve needy families—includes temporary assistance to needy families, the Head Start program, subsidized child care, refugee programs, and child welfare initiatives; (8) $41 billion on housing programs for 5.5 million households, including homeless assistance, housing for the elderly, people with disabilities, homeless veterans, as well as foreclosure prevention, reducing housing discrimination, and led-based paint hazard reduction; (9) $56 billion on Supplemental Security Income; and (10) about $550 in Social Security benefits for seniors.

Which of these programs would we be willing to cut? Without question there are things we can do to increase the efficiency and impact of these programs. But I am not willing to give up these services for myself, should I ever need them; nor am I willing to accept the alternative outcomes that would result from the elimination of these programs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 31% of the population had at least one spell of poverty lasting two or more months during 2004-2007. Most Americans—59%—will spend at least one year below the poverty line a some point between ages 25-75. So it is something that impacts most Americans either directly or indirectly.

Fortunately, chronic poverty is relatively rare (1.8% of the population). But in 2008 13% of the nation—about 40 million people—were below the official poverty line. Poverty in America is still a huge problem. But it is much different than the problem that many on the Right imagine it to be.

We still hear conservatives calling poor people “lazy.” Let’s take the SNAP program (Food Stamps) as an example; 51% of the participants are children. Lazy? Another 9% are elderly. Lazy? Another 14% goes to households with disabled persons. Lazy? The average household benefit is a mere $226 per month. The SNAP program (formerly called Food Stamps) can be used to purchase healthy food from a participating grocery store. Others blame immigrants for the persistence of poverty in America. In the Economic Policy Institute report, “The State of Working America 2008/2009“, this claim is challenged. The report shows that immigrant poverty has fallen while overall poverty has increased—partially due to decreased union influence and a low minimum wage.

Instead of blaming the victims of poverty, we should look at why CEO pay has risen massively and overall productivity has risen steadily, yet wages have been stagnant. (Robert Reich’s book, “Supercapitalism” is an excellent, balanced discussion about this issue.) Rather than trying to fix our deficit “crisis” by cutting benefits to the needy, we should look at what is wrong with our political and economic systems that continue to increase inequality while neglecting superfluous military spending.