My Turn: Social programs are under attack

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2003

While America is transfixed watching the war in Iraq on TV, the Bush administration is proceeding here at home with an under-the-cover-of-war political attack on the poor, the young, the old and minorities. This administration is slashing social programs that assist the weakest and most disenfranchised segments of our society. Worse still, this hatchet job is being done in order to finance record tax cuts that will primarily benefit the wealthiest Americans. Here are some examples of this rear guard attack.

The poor: According to an analysis of the House funding bills undertaken by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the proposed cut in the food stamp program, if achieved by lowering the maximum benefit, would lead to a reduction in the average benefit to 84 cents. But eating won't be the only concern for the poor. The administration's budget for fiscal year 2004 provides insufficient funding to support all of the housing vouchers that are expected to be in use assisting low-income families.

The young: According to the CBPP, the House's proposed cuts in child nutrition programs threaten to eliminate school lunches for 2.4 million low-income children; the cut in Medicaid, if achieved entirely by reducing the number of children covered, would lead to the elimination of health coverage for 13.6 million children.

The old: The administration proposes to "fix" Medicare by encouraging seniors to participate in a HMO type Medicare coverage. Those who don't choose to participate will receive limited benefits under the present style program. In economic theory, this sounds fine. But in practical terms, how many seniors are positioned to do comparative health care shopping? The real goal of Medicare is to ensure that the less privileged elderly receive satisfactory health care. One of the main complaints against the administration's proposal is that it will create two categories of Medicare recipients: those receiving quality care under a HMO style program (more costly to the participant but less costly to the government) and those who can't afford to participate in the HMO style program. Once Congress "fixes" the program, it's unlikely they will rush to scrutinize the care received by those who could not or would not join the HMO option. Essentially, this plan segregates the "haves" from the "have nots" and is yet another example of the administration's "divide and conquer" political tactics (notwithstanding its professed abhorrence of "class warfare").

The minorities: For 50 years affirmative action programs have served as a tool in this nation's worthy efforts to address the disparities of opportunity that factually exist between the races. Affirmative action programs are neither a perfect nor a painless solution. Nevertheless, these programs are slowly being assimilated into and accepted by the nation as a tolerable part of the nation's effort to address such disparities. More important, these programs have proven results. Despite this, the administration challenged the constitutionality of affirmative programs in the Supreme Court. A full scale court disapproval of these programs is unlikely given that some of the strongest evidence of the necessity and success of such programs comes from amicus briefs filed on behalf of the U.S. military. But banning these programs was never the point. These cases were not a legal priority. Rather, these cases were pressed to accentuate this administration's far-right-wing pedigree with its core constituency while letting the Supreme Court be the fall guy when the attack falls short. Unfortunately, such a brazen political attack against race relations could well stifle the heretofore advancing, albeit fragile, belief that our government actually cares about equality for all.

Like Dorothy and her entourage as they stared spellbound at the flaming, bellowing, smoky facade masquerading as the Wizard, we also need to start paying attention to what's happening behind the curtain. The administration's assault on social programs, programs that represent the best of the American spirit, may not be filled with the "shock and awe" of bombs over Baghdad. Unfortunately, left unchecked, the impact here at home may be every bit as dramatic.

Garland Walker of Juneau is a lawyer and U.S. military veteran.

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