Falling into The Gap

On what passes for the left in this country, the debate is about the damage being done by Newt and the Newtzis. Not damage control, just damage.

There's an extent to which liberals have been crying "Wolf!" for a long time now. (Actually, the left doesn't cry "Wolf!," it cries "jack-booted fascism!" at the drop of a hat.)

Richard Nixon may have damaged the Constitution and the country's faith in itself, but as Tom Wicker so persuasively argues, his domestic policies were actually benign. Jerry Ford did no harm. And Ronald Reagan, for all we whined and moaned about the domestic budget cuts du jour, left us mostly with a $2 trillion debt and a certain moral squalor (and as Hillary Clinton was so rudely reminded, any liberal who made money on cattle futures is not entitled to carry on about moral squalor).

But now, we all say, drawing a deep breath, we are looking at real damage. Tony Lewis of The New York Times claims the only irreparable damage will be in what the Republicans do to the environment. Social and economic policies can be reversed, but environmental damage is forever.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the U.S. Senate, who has been right about the welfare system for longer than most of the Newtzis have been alive, made one last, long, eloquent plea against the nightmare of interlocking Catch-22s the Republicans call "welfare reform." He was run over by the Republican pep squad.

Yeah, we're talking "people on grates." $4.25 an hour is not a living wage, period. Human beings are just as perishable as the environment.

Children don't recover from early malnutrition. Kids don't do well in school if their teeth hurt all the time because they've never had dental care. You can't repeal tuberculosis and AIDS.

But from another perspective, the irreparable damage is apt to be The Gap (not to be confused with a clothing store of that name). Let's go back to the $2 trillion debt incurred by Reagan. Since 1979, what economic distribution studies have showed is that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, the middle class is shrinking, and The Gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots is getting wider and wider and wider.

The Gap has an unknowable effect on this country in terms of cohesion and social unity. The Reagan debt came mostly from wild overspending on the military (see When the Pentagon Was For Sale) and the savings and loan fiasco.

Now the payment for that debt is being loaded onto the poor in this country by two methods. One is an unfair system of taxation, which the Republicans are about to make sharply more unfair, and the other is by cutting programs that affect the poor.

Cox News Service did a roundup of the changes that will most affect those who barely have their noses above the economic waters now:

* Medicaid. Savings of $182 billion over seven years by changing an open-ended federal matching program to a set of state-run programs financed by set annual payments that gradually come down by 30 percent. States get to choose whether to cut eligibility or what is covered.

* Welfare. Savings of $66 to $100 billion over seven years by eliminating federal rules and capping federal spending on AFDC, child care, child protection programs, and nutritional aid.

* Earned Income Tax Credit. Save between $20 and $30 billion over seven years by restricting eligibility and reducing the size of the tax credit. EITC raises the take-home pay of low-income workers by offsetting payroll and income taxes in full or in part. About 17 million taxpayers will lose about $281 each next year. The EITC was started under Jerry Ford and vastly expanded by Bill Clinton in 1993.

* Low-income housing. Save $6 billion by eliminating 36 housing programs and trimming 200 others.

And so on and so forth. Labor and education programs, $4.3 billion; energy assistance, $1.3 billion; nutrition programs, Medicare, etc. These are all programs that help the poorest Americans.

What didn't we lose under the Republican budget? Corporate welfare. Farm subsidies. The tobacco subsidy is just fine, thank you, Jesse Helms. The sugar subsidy, a real piece of dumbness, remains intact because a platoon of lobbyists was sent in to save it. Lobbyists saved the subsidy for American corporations, now making record profits, to sell their wares overseas.

Poor children don't have lobbyists. Those charitable organizations that do speak up for the poor are now muzzled because the Republicans have threatened to make it illegal for them to use more than five percent of their non-federal money on lobbying if they get any federal funds. There are 39,000 charitable organizations that share $40 billion in federal funds for a wide variety of social programs. Under a Republican proposal, they could not spend more than five percent of their money on political activities, broadly defined as everything from writing their congressman to filing friend-of-the-court briefs in litigation.

The Republicans are not only screwing the poor, they're making sure they can't scream about it either.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins