Mistaken Priorities

The Republican Party has set three priorities for the summer:

1. Writing discrimination against gays into the US Constitution through an amendment that would prohibit gay marriage.

2. Preventing the scourge of flag-burning by amending the constitution and eviscerating First Amendment free-speech protections.

3. And it wants to make sure that the rich can keep their riches.

What it does not want to do is aid ordinary Americans.

At almost every turn, the president and his party have made it clear where their priorities stand.

"The administration, desperate to shore up its own base, is back to posturing on symbolic issues -- a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, a constitutional amendment on burning the flag -- and throwing money at the affluent who pay for the party," the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote in a column in the Chicago Sun-Times recently. "Meanwhile, the poor are simply ignored. The cities abandoned. Working people slighted."

Look at the numbers:

About 12% of American households in 2004 (most recent statistics) experienced some level of food insecurity -- meaning they did not have enough food to sustain "an active, healthy life for all household members" -- according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Blacks were hit hardest, with 23.7% experiencing some food insecurity in 2004, while 21.7% of Hispanic households also experienced food issues. And the figure for households headed by single mothers is particularly staggering: a whopping 33%, or one in three, according to the USDA.

But what are we hearing from the president?

An estate-tax repeal that the GOP says will save family farmers and small business owners, but that in reality will go only to those with significant assets -- without mentioning that a large chunk of cash (about $4 million) already can be passed along to heirs without a penny of tax being paid.

The tax cut, which will be worth about $300 billion over five years, will go to about one out of every 200 families who pay the tax (or the wealthiest half a percent of the country), according to news reports. And that joins a series of other tax cuts that have gone primarily to the people at the top of the income ladder.

The flip side of these tax cuts, of course, are harsh service cuts and the potential in the not-too-distant future for some tax increases.

Which is why, as Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, the estate tax repeal essentially says that "increasing the wealth of people who are already in line to inherit millions or tens of millions is more important than taking care of fellow citizens who need a helping hand."

But Congress has made deficit reduction a priority and has made cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and education spending. The Medicaid cuts, Krugman says, "will have the largest human impact" costing about 65,000 people, mainly children, their health insurance and leading many others "to skip needed medical care because they can't afford increased co-payments."

The cuts were explained away by the GOP, Krugman writes, by saying pain was necessary to bring the deficit down.

"But those same leaders now propose making the deficit worse by repealing the estate tax," he writes. "Apparently deficits aren't such a big problem after all, as long as we're running up debts to provide bigger inheritances to wealthy heirs rather than to provide medical care to children."

So we are left with this: a growing class of people who are facing real economic insecurity. In New Jersey, where I live, one out of every nine residents will go hungry at some point during the year -- many being forced into hunger by the loss of an income in a two-income family, a health emergency, transportation problems that affect work, the loss of child care, things most of us take for granted.

Take the loss of a car. It can make getting to a job nearly impossible, or prohibitively expensive. Without a job, or with limited employment, the bank account dwindles or the balances on credit cards grow. Tough decisions have to be made and the fixed costs, the rent, the utilities, get paid at the expense of the food.

We did a story a couple of years ago on a 39-year-old single mother that illustrates this. The woman was working commuting by bus to a company in Princeton, about seven miles away, for a company in Princeton, earning enough to keep food on the table and occasionally go to a movie or purchase a video game.

Her company moved, however, and she lost her job. Finding a new one was difficult, though, because she didn't have a car and the only public transportation was along the bus line and she had no one to watch her children. That left her to collect unemployment and turn to the local food pantry for help.

Lucky for her, the food pantry existed and the community has always been generous, keeping its shelves pretty well stocked.

But there is a limit to how much help a small pantry or food bank -- or even a state-wide food bank -- can provide. And what about those communities without this kind of social safety net?

The president and Congress, unfortunately, don't seem to care much about the answer to that question.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press in New Jersey. Email See

From The Progressive Populist, July 1, 2006

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