The Holy Apostles soup kitchen in New York City, serving more meals than ever before, as the Census Bureau reported its greatest annual increase in citizens in poverty since records began. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Obama administration has been tardy to tackle economic misery, but looks set to lose to a GOP that would do even less.|
According to the US Census Bureau report released this week, the number of Americans living in poverty has jumped to 43.6 million, or one in seven Americans. It is the highest single-year increase since the government began tracking poverty levels in 1959, five years before President Lyndon Johnson launched his war on poverty; and the indications are that the trend is continuing this year.
Yet, there is no talk of an all-out war or even a euphemistic Operation New Dawn to tackle the most pressing issue for ordinary Americans – their economic security. In fact, in a strange paradox, the party that is accused of doing too little to combat the crisis is poised to suffer heavy defeats in the upcoming mid-term elections by the party accused of doing nothing at all.
Since the Obama administration took office, the GOP, or "the party of no" as Republicans have styled themselves, have opposed every measure that would ease the economic burdens of struggling Americans. The $800bn stimulus package, which is now widely accepted as having averted (so far, at least) a double-dip recession, was passed into law without a single GOP vote in the house and only three GOP votes in the senate. The healthcare bill passed, after a tortuous year of wrangling and watering down, with no republican votes; and GOP leaders already have proposals in place to repeal it, if they are awarded the opportunity in November.|
Extension of benefits to 2.5 million unemployed Americans were held up for weeks by a GOP filibuster. President Obama's recent proposal for an increase of $50bn in infrastructure spending to build roads, railways and runways was similarly shot down by GOP leaders and, of all things, a jobs bill has been held up for months in the senate by Republican opposition.
One would think that opposing a jobs bill at a time when there are 14.9 million unemployed Americans, and approximately six applicants for every one job opening would be political suicide, but apparently not. Finally, this week, two Republican senators broke ranks with their party to assist passage of the modest bill that promises to provide around 500,000 new jobs. In the end, the long-awaited bill will barely scratch the surface of the problem, but it is better than nothing.
The scary thing that the census report on poverty highlights is that if it were not for these hard-won and, in many people's view, inadequate measures – extending unemployment and food stamp benefits, for example – millions more struggling Americans would soon be joining the 4 million who were plunged into poverty last year alone.
So why, then, does it seem likely that we are poised to return to power in congress the party that opposes virtually every form of assistance and stimulus – other than tax breaks to the rich?
It seems that it's not so much the programmes themselves that are the problem; rather, it is how to pay for them. Thanks to the financial collapse, two wars, the Tarp bailout, and yes, the stimulus package, the deficit is growing. And Republican party leaders are staunchly opposed to having a deficit, except, strangely, when they themselves are controlling congress.
It is old news that the budget deficit grew astronomically during the Bush era, thanks to funding two wars while granting tax cuts to the wealthy. These tax cuts, which have now been in place for almost a decade, were supposed to have a trickle-down effect on the rest of us.
It's hardly necessary to provide statistical proof that this has not been the case, but on the off-chance that any doubt remains, one can reference the census report, which shows in detail that the median income for all households has fallen below the level it was at in the late nineties. We are all poorer since the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were legislated, yet these cuts are touted time and again by the GOP as a magic wand solution to all our economic woes.
In the meantime, what is undeniable is that the middle class are getting poorer and the poor are getting poorer still. The number of people lacking health insurance rose in a single year from 46.3 million to 50.7 million, due mostly to the loss of employer-based health insurance; and 20% of American children – one in five – are now living in poverty. As a New Yorker, I am getting weary of seeing homeless on every street corner and passing ever-growing lines of people waiting for food handouts in midtown Manhattan where the abundance of wealth has failed miserably in its attempts to trickle down.
I just hope that when it comes to making a decision in November about who will be in charge of our economic futures, we choose leaders who at least try to address the dire straits facing ordinary Americans, rather than those who cultivate short memories about how deficits grew and hold firm to policies that benefit only the few.