I know this is the season for joy and goodwill to all, but I can't help being a bit cynical at the perverse "love" for the poor and disadvantaged that materializes between Thanksgiving and New Year's when the very people who pride themselves for their charity perpetuate the policies that keep people in a perpetual state of poverty and suffering.
We don't have to replay Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to see the gross inequities in society, or watch "It's a Wonderful Life" to see the difference in a community between living under the thumb of those who control the pursestrings and being able to afford your own home, or to question the disparity between the values we claim to cherish in America and the policies we enact - Congressional Republicans have given us real world, real-time evidence in their newest crusade to slash food stamps, even as they gleefully reward themselves with agricultural subsidies.
The Republicans are demanding $40 billion in cuts to food stamps program (the supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and new eligibility requirements that will mean that just having a car - which is a necessity for people to get to work - renders you ineligible.
Republican Congressman Kevin Cramer (R-ND) is not the first but is the most recent to cite the New Testament as justification for denying food stamps to unemployed or unemployable people, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”
Cramer argued, “We can generate $20 billion in savings by ending these waivers while encouraging able-bodied people to work … When did America become a country where working for benefits is no longer noble?”
Based on this philosophy, the Republicans want to cut food stamps for 3.8 million people, which includes 2.2 million children, as well as veterans, elderly, and disabled. And by losing SNAP, perversely 210,000 children will also become ineligible for school meals.
Cramer may assert the "nobility" of this policy, but at the same time, he along with other Republicans are not so proud as to refuse agricultural subsidies. In fact, Cramer’s North Dakota district was the single largest recipient of farm subsidies in the nation, collecting $10.4 billion from 2005 to 2012, George Chidi reported in Rawstory (9/21/13).
And David Badash reported that 14 members of Congress who voted to continue farm subsidies but cut SNAP for 47 million Americans actually personally benefited from the farm subsidies. He found that each is Republican, has a total net worth of up to $124.5 million, have collectively received at least $7.2 million in farm subsidies and "each previously voted to gut the SNAP program by giving states large financial incentives to kick families off SNAP." (see: Is Your Congressman One Of The 13 Who Get Federal Farm Subsidies But Voted To Cut Food Stamps?
Republicans claim they are doing this in the interest of fiscal responsibility - the national debt, you know.
In fact, cutting food stamps is bad for the economy, because unlike the tax cuts to the richest 1% and to corporations, social safety net measures like food stamps and unemployment benefits directly spur the economy and break the downward cycle.
Every $1 in food stamps generates $1.80 in economic activity; $5 in SNAP generates $9 of economic activity for the 230,000 for retail outlets that participate.
"One supermarket reported that 80% of its 7000 customers weekly use food stamps and their business was cut 10% after cuts to food stamps," said Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council.
"This is one of the reasons why SNAP has been fully integrated into any farm bill authorization - there is a strong connection in economic benefits for those who produce food but also for those who use SNAP to purchase food and thereby support not just their families but local retail outlets and the economy."
But it is more that. "There is a fundamental difference of values," said Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. "It says something about who we are as a society, that we would even have a conversation about pulling off food from the table of children, elderly, veterans."
Sperling added, "3.8 million people are not numbers, they are our neighbors," Sperling said. "A lot of people, their lives count, their nutrition counts. On policy, SNAP is pro-work - 96% of people who were working one year before and got SNAP and were working the next.
"The provision that Republicans are supporting are not pro-work, are just harsh and denying flexibility that is desired by both Democratic and Republican governors to deal with the fact that our economy, while recovering is still coming back from the worst recession since the Great Depression."
Of course, even Cramer's translation says "not willing to work." He did not bother to make mention of the fact that the real unemployment rate, thanks to the Bush era, is 14%. His Biblical quote does not include foot notes about whether the person is unemployed because of the games that Wall Street played that crashed the economy and sent 850,000 a month to the unemployment lines, or that Walmart shut a store to prevent it from becoming unionized and pays wages so low that 80% of its employees qualify for public benefits, or austerity pushed municipalities to lay off 1 million workers, or companies have gamed the system to outsource jobs and profits to countries like Bangladesh, or whether that person is a veteran suffering from PTSD, or a military family with an income so low they still qualify for food stamps, or whether that person is unemployable because of a lack of skills or education or oppositely, too highly educated for the jobs that are available, or the fact that there are 20 out-of-work people for every job opening today and corporations, whose stocks have reached record highs, are preferring to hoard cash rather than invest in new hires.
Ironically, the reason that corporations are hoarding record profits instead of hiring is because there isn't enough consumer demand, precisely because 95% of all the income gains since the recession have gone to the top 1% and we are seeing the greatest gap between rich and poor since the Gilded Age a century ago. From 2009 to 2012, as the U.S. economy improved, incomes of the top 1% (those with incomes above $394,000) grew more than 31%, while the incomes of the 99% grew scarcely at all, just 0.4% - less than half a percentage point.
And yet, the ranks of the world's billionaires have again reached all-time highs, both in terms of the number of billionaires (1,426) and record net worth ($5.4 trillion) and the United States still has more billionaires than any other country. The six Walton heirs, alone, control more wealth ($144 billion) than the combined wealth of the bottom 40% of all Americans (that's 120 million people).
This growing gap between rich and poor is not a "cycle" an "accident" or "coincidental." It is the result of government tax and spending policies - a trend toward regressive taxation, choices in the allocation of subsidies (Big Oil and Agriculture, yes; infrastructure and green technology, no), and policies that incentivize companies to offshore jobs and profits. Look at how governments are trying to claw back pension and health benefits from public workers (Detroit is a good example), and yet the golden parachutes for Wall Street executives who tanked their companies and caused trillions in wealth to evaporate from 401Ks and IRAs are somehow enshrined in the Constitution.
And it is the result of allowing employers to pay less than a living wage. The minimum wage today, at $7.25 is equivalent to 1963's minimum wage of $1.25. The March on Washington in 1963 was calling for an increase in the minimum wage to $2, which would be equivalent to asking for $15.18 today.
McDonald's Corporation, which just bought another $35-million-dollar luxury jet, pays employees so little money that we taxpayers pony up $1.2 billion a year in public assistance. Altogether, American fast food workers receive more than $7 billion dollars in public assistance.
"At over $446 billion per year, Walmart is the third highest revenue grossing corporation in the world. Walmart earns over $15 billion per year in pure profit and pays its executives handsomely. In 2011, Walmart CEO Mike Duke – already a millionaire a dozen times over – received an $18.1 million compensation package. The Walton family controlling over 48 percent of the corporation through stock ownership does even better. Together, members of the Walton family are worth in excess of $102 billion – which makes them one of the richest families in the world," Paddy Ryan reported, 'Walmart: America's real 'Welfare Queen', in Daily Kos (Oct 10, 2012)
"Wal-Mart's poverty wages force employees to rely on $2.66 billion in government help every year, or about $420,000 per store. In state after state, Wal-Mart employees are the top recipients of Medicaid. As many as 80 percent of workers in Wal-Mart stores use food stamps."
This season, a Walmart store in Clinton, Ohio attained notoriety for a Thanksgiving food drive where its workers putting out bins to collect food for even more needy Walmart workers, most likely purchased from Walmart's own shelves.
In 2012, Walmart banked $22.1 billion in profit and paid $5.3 billion in federal taxes. But if it had increased wages for its workers from $7.25 (the current minimum wage) to $12.50, it would have simply deducted the expense from its taxable income and would likely have passed along the increase to its customers, estimated at 46 cents per shopping trip or $12.49 a year for the average shopper who spends more than a $1,000, so there would have been no impact at all on pocketable profits. In fact, as that anti-Semite, Nazi-loving, union-busting Henry Ford realized, paying his workers a decent wage meant they could buy cars from Ford.
Raising the minimum wage would increase GDP between $11.8 and $15.2 billion over the next year and would create 100,000 or more net new jobs, Demos reported. What's more, the increased purchasing power of low-wage employees would generate $4 to $5 billion additional annual sales for the retail sector itself, according to a separate analysis by the University of California Berkeley Labor Center.
Instead, Walmart uses money it could apply to pay a living wage to local advertising designed to convince consumers how wonderful a company Walmart is, and all the wonderful career opportunities it provides its workers.
The Walton Family is worth $144.4 billion - the six Waltons control more wealth than the bottom 40% of all Americans (that's 120 million people).
Alice Walton, known as the major philanthropist of the family, donated $1.2 billion in 2011 to open the Museum of American Art Crystal Bridges in the town of Bentonville (Ark.), the home of Wal-Mart (free admission!).
How kind, a Walton endowed an art museum in Arkansas where there had been none at all.
Please sir, can I have some more?
The Koch Brothers, who have used their fossil-fueled fortune to finance political campaigns for everything from attacking health care reform and gun violence prevention to promoting climate-change denial and voter suppression, are also known as marvelous philanthropists, spending a pittance of their wealth, really, on cancer research, the arts, even the Human Origins wing at the Smithsonian's American Museum of Natural History (they pulled their funding of PBS over a documentary, "Citizen Koch" they didn't want aired).
Congress has the opportunity to raise the minimum wage. Not surprisingly, House Republicans have chosen to sit on the bill. And while the knee-jerk reaction from Conservatives is to repel from government intervention and let the "market" determine wages, the fact is that few companies voluntarily raise wages and those that do immediately are at a competitive disadvantage with companies that exploit their workers. Raising the minimum wage would level that playing field and would cost companies very little - in fact, the higher wages mean they get to deduct more business expense from the already miserly taxes they pay, and would pass along the expense to their customers. While Republicans claim it would inhibit hiring, that has not been shown to be the case.
But just as low wages and the lack of access to health care wind up costing taxpayers more, income inequality costs society in many ways. One example, "the gap in test scores between rich and poor children is 30-40% wider than it was 25 years ago: given that the distribution of innate intelligence is unlikely to have shifted so much in a generation, that suggests that rich youngsters are benefiting more than ever from their economic and social advantages," The Economist reported (Sept. 21, 2013).
The rest of us pay for that gap - communities have to spend more on academic remediation, and society pays in the lost revenues over time because of that person's failure to achieve his full potential.
As much as Obama calls for policies to spark jobs creation through infrastructure, research and development, education and health care, Republicans have been determined to stop anything - even the transportation spending that have always had bipartisan support.
This is more than political ideology - particularly since "trickle down" economics has been proved to be what it is, "voodoo" economics that only provides an excuse to retain the policies that are fostering the greatest gap between rich and poor since the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons. Even Pope Francis says so.
It must be a matter of principle, a philosophical basis for purposefully paying such low wages and not "good business" practice or even concern for shareholders because economically, increasing wages would benefit Walmart, the workers, the communities and society. It seems to be founded in a belief in a kind of Social Darwinism - that rich and poor deserve their respective fates - that allows the rich (the policymakers) to justify their practices, not unlike how White slaveholders, good Christians as they were, managed to justify slavery and Jim Crow.
And even though it has been shown during the Clinton era that a rising sea lifts all boats, there is a determination to maintain the policies that destroy upward mobility for all but a small percentage of outliers. Instead of a War on Poverty you have a War on the Middle Class.
Because more than at any time in history, money is political power, and middle class people tend to be active politically, so there is no incentive for them to promote policies which give people an upwardly mobile path to the middle class. It's not about amassing more, it's about controlling a bigger share of the pie.
Instead of destroying the safety net and keeping workers struggling without a living wage, these are the things will go far to restore the American Dream: investment in infrastructure and a green economy (create an Infrastructure Bank and a Green Bank); raising the minimum wage, providing a legalized status for undocumented immigrants, fair housing and credit policies, protecting the Safety Net of Social Security and Medicare and SNAP, continuing the campaign to provide universal access to health care and reining in health care costs.
The benefits are in an improved quality of life and dignity for everyone, the opportunity to fulfill one's potential, and even more money and less spending by government.
But if you actually take the steps to alleviate poverty- as President Johnson did so successfully with his Great Society program - how would the richest among us get that feeling of superiority and goodness they get from being able to bestow their philanthropy? How would they feel cleansed from the rest of the year? Where would they get that ticket to paradise that awaits in the after-life?
The One Percenters may have to look for another pathway to heaven.
In his recently published Exhortation, Pope Francis actually made these same points, warning the world against the idolatry of money and the false promise of trickle-down economics.
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality...
Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”..
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 naïve 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... The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.....
While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.
To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.
Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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