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A Budget That Tightens Belts by Emptying Stomachs

10:24 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times.

A time-honored tactic of conservative lawmakers is to “starve the beast”by defunding government programs. In the case of food stamps—the quintessential whipping boy for budget hawks—they’re going a step further by trying to starve actual people.

The House of Representatives and Senate have proposed the United States “tighten our belts” by slashing billions of dollars from poor people’s food budgets. The main mechanism for shrinking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding is the removal of “categorical eligibility.” Basically, most states have used this policy to streamline enrollment: Families are made eligible for food stamps based on their receipt of other benefits, such as housing or childcare subsidies. That often means broadening eligibility for working-poor families or those with overall household income or savings that exceeds regular, stricter thresholds for qualifying for food stamps.

Now the House and Senate farm bill proposals, particularly the House plan, seek to “save” billions more by cutting categorical eligibility. Under the House farm bill budget, which cuts $20.5 billion in SNAP over 10 years, benefits would be eliminated for “nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly working families with children and senior citizens,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). (The Senate bill also cuts SNAP but only by about $4 billion over 10 years). In addition, the cuts would devastate poor students, because SNAP eligibility has enabled 210,000 low-income children to qualify for free school meals. That means more hunger pangs for kids in the cafeteria, and an emptier refrigerator waiting for them at home. Meanwhile, their working-poor parents may find themselves buying cheaper, less nutritious food to stretch budgets, or turning to the local food pantry, or facing cruel trade-offs like delaying rent payments to pay for groceries or leaving a health problem untreated. Read the rest of this entry →

Cutting the Budget, Bleeding Us Dry

2:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


Originally posted at In These Times

If you feel like that recovery we keep hearing about hasn’t quite trickled down to your block, there’s a good reason. A huge swath of the country’s workers are out of sync with the economic cycle, continually falling further behind the rich. And, now Obama’s proposed budget may hinder them even more.

According to a new multi-year study by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, many families are priced out of “recovery” for reasons that long predated the recession and will persist indefinitely even as the economy “bounces back.”

Though it’s unsurprising that economic insecurity becomes more ingrained over time, the Pew study reveals that struggling families have had to make trade-offs that further deplete their’ resiliency for coping with the next crisis. According to the analysis, “Those without personal savings and kinship networks to support them frequently used resources they had allocated for their children’s education or their own retirement to fund short-term needs.”

Experiencing unemployment is linked not only to temporary income loss, but to a long-term erosion of wealth over many years. With long-term joblessness still at epidemic levels, the trauma of the recession may bleed into a lifetime of hardship, freighted with crushing debts,  or dependency on meager public benefits, or the foreclosure of their children’s college prospects.  Read the rest of this entry →

Pension Panic Fueled by Anti-Worker Politics?

8:50 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Pew Center on the States

Originally posted at In These Times

It’s a common refrain in local papers: State faces pension funding crisis! Retiree benefits out of control! Public pensions bog down taxpayers! Pension costs seem to loom over so many state and local budget battles like a sinister sword of Damocles, a dark reminder of Big Government’s tyrannical profligacy.

Should we panic? Well, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States, 61 cities face a collective fiscal retirement burden of more than $210 billion, in part because consistent underfunding of benefits leaves yawning gaps in long-term cost projections. The report surveyed all U.S. cities with populations over 500,000, along with the most populous city in each state. Some cities are doing better than others in maintaining funds, but gaps persist, according to Pew’s estimates for fiscal years 2007-2010, especially in municipalities where local governments have lacked the “fiscal discipline” to keep up pension fund contributions—a situation exacerbated by the Great Recession.

But different political actors have different motives for expressing alarm over pension gaps. In some cases, dubiously calculated figures have inflated public concern.

Sometimes, politicians frame cost-cutting proposals as if “generous” benefits themselves are the problem, as opposed to officials failing to uphold the commitments they’ve made to civil servants. Read the rest of this entry →

Shame of the Nation: House VAWA Bill Ratchets Up Attacks on Domestic Violence Survivors

12:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Women have been under economic assault in Washington for months. Deficit hawks have taken aim at social programs and civil rights protections that help keep women safe, healthy and able to participate in work and community life. To some lawmakers, none of that is more important than “saving” taxpayer dollars—which is often shorthand for robbing working women of both their earnings and their safety net.

The hostility toward women crested this week as conservative lawmakers pushed legislation that would gut the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). House Bill 4970 isn’t just oppressive to survivors; it attacks the civil and social rights of all women. By raising barriers to economic assistance and legal recourse, the legislation sends the message to countless women living in violent households that their place is still in the home.

Even with protective laws on the books, a woman struggling to support a family and avoid foreclosure faces a devastating choice when the alternative to an abusive home is homelessness. The decision to break away is even harder when local service programs and battered women’s shelters are themselves struggling for survival amid budget cuts.

Adding insult to injury, many states have failed to protect survivors’ access to unemployment insurance, which aggravates the economic instability that often keeps vulnerable women tied to abusive partners.

The House version of VAWA would deal a blow to immigrants trapped in abusive relationships, making it harder to petition for legal status as abuse victims, and easier for abusers to terrorize partners who fear immigration authorities. Lisalyn Jacobs of the advocacy group Legal Momentum told In These Times that “immigrant women are particularly economically vulnerable and may either be relying on their abusive partner’s income, or in a marginal position themselves that prevents them from being economically stable enough to leave their violent partners.” The bill also erodes mandates for public housing authorities to develop policies to help abused residents relocate to safer places. Read the rest of this entry →

Participatory Budgeting Lets New Yorkers Experiment With Economic Democracy

6:03 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A steering committee workshop of the Participatory Budgeting Project. (PB Project)

 

Cross-posted from In These Times

For many American cities, the budget process is basically fiscal hell, and the politics of plugging potholes and funding schools akin to legislative purgatory. But a tiny miracle  just arrived in New York City. Communities are experimenting with Participatory Budgeting, a system for giving local people a say in planning their budget priorities. While it’s no magic bullet, the program marks a small step toward economic democracy in Gotham.

The Participatory Budgeting in New York City (PBNYC) project is just a pilot so far, starting with a pot of a few million dollars. But the main goal is to empower “community members, in partnership with participating City Council Members, to decide for themselves what investments their community needs,” according to Community Voices Heard, the project’s leading grassroots coordinating group.

After weeks of intense discussions among thousands of residents, PBNYC announced a number of winners, including playground improvements, a library vending machine, transportation services for seniors. Other proposals ranged from tech equipment for local schools to an ultrasound system for a community hospital. These projects may seem mundane, but the real win in this process is the process itself: people assembling for a meaningful dialogue about how to use their resources. When working-class folks in diverse communities have an inclusive forum to invest public money according to their priorities, they have a mechanism for translating their daily contributions as workers and taxpayers into political efficacy.  Who’d have thought that voting to add trash cans on the street or renovate public housing could be a democratic milestone?

Still, what seems like an unprecedented step forward for notoriously mismanaged and politically stagnant U.S. cities is pretty routine in other parts of the world. Read the rest of this entry →

Washington’s Debt Panic and the Real Social Debt in America

10:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

DonkeyHotey via flickr

Cross-posted from In These Times

In the wake of the Congressional Supercommittee’s collapse, we finally have consensus on both sides of the aisle: the lawmakers orchestrating the partisan drama are, behind the scenes, happy to collaborate on destroying economic security for all but the wealthiest Americans.

Though the debt hysteria made good political theater, the main immediate impact on the budget is simply to prolong the sense of doom hovering over struggling households. The budget problem those families face isn’t some theoretical future debt crisis but the possibility of losing unemployment checks when a year-end legislative deadline hits.

Federally funded unemployment benefits, which conservatives dismiss as a fluffy cushion for the shiftless poor, have been a lifeline for some 17 million Americans in the past three years. In addition to helping individual households pay their bills, the benefits have had a ripple effect on cities and towns battered by an anemic job market,  “contributing nearly $180 billion in hard cash to those communities struggling with severe unemployment,” according to a report issued in October by the National Employment Law Project. Read the rest of this entry →

Scant Room for Equity in Obama’s Talking Points on Jobs

7:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

Cross-posted from In These Times.

President Obama’s jobs speech before Congress struck an uncomfortable balance between the art of the possible and the sophistry of defeatism.

The speech did offer some serious ideas about reinvigorating the stagnant economy. But for all the talking points—from infrastructure investment to initiatives to promote hiring of veterans and the long-term unemployed—his eloquent words sidestepped the ideological barriers imposed by Washington’s reactionary ideologues. Meanwhile, the groups suffering the worst of the economic crisis—the poor, people of color, single women—may be hurt more by his careful omissions than they’d be helped by his proposals.

First, it’s far from clear whether the initiatives laid out in the speech, particularly the tax-cutting provisions, would make a significant dent in unemployment. The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild points out that the structure of Obama’s highlighted payroll tax cut could be considered “regressive,” in that the bonus will be weighted toward the pockets of higher income-earners rather than the working poor.

More broadly, the pitch for cautiously modest, though earnest, stimulus measures seemed designed to ease the path toward more deficit slashing and cutbacks on social programs in the long run. The subtext appears to be a drive toward austerity and “entitlement reform”—pivoting toward conservatives who routinely demonize “nanny state” institutions like Social Security and Medicare. So despite rhetoric that pundits praised as “Trumanesque” and “fiery,” celebrating historic public works and exhorting Congress to cooperate for once, the speech was silent on the institutional pillars that should buttress any job creation plan. Read the rest of this entry →

Georgia’s Celebrated No-Cost Labor Scheme: Cheating the Jobless?

4:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

For a typical boss, there’s only one thing better than getting away with not paying your workers: getting the government to supply you with people who will work for free. It’s an employer’s dream that may soon become reality around the country, as President Obama has moved toward incorporating it in his emerging job-creation agenda.

The job-creation flavor of the week is GeorgiaWork$, a job program that has for several years funneled unemployed workers into job slots as “trainees.” Under this half-internship, half-indentured servitude scheme, a worker can earn a $240 weekly stipend on top of regular unemployment benefits for eight weeks, working 24 hours per week. Unlike other job subsidy programs, which use generally use public dollars to supplement workers’ regular earnings, GeorgiaWork$ allows the state to capitalize on existing unemployment payments while giving a free boost to private employers. Workers, often hired in service sectors like child care and restaurant work, can only hope that their bosses will hire them after their preliminary test run ends.

This system fits well with Obama’s anti-spending, quasi-pro-stimulus double-speak, and his forthcoming jobs plan may include a federal version of Georgia’s virtually free labor system.

While there may be many desperate people ready to forfeit labor standards for any form of paid work, the Huffington Post reports that so far, the program doesn’t seem to live up to its promise of  sustainable job growth: