Friday, September 20, 2013

Blaming the victims; or, It’s the 5th Anniversary of the Great Recession and all I got is this lousy t-shirt

Five years ago this week, one of the country’s largest investment banks went bankrupt. With the bursting of the “housing bubble,” Lehman Brothers’ risky financial escapades put not just them but the entire US economy on the brink of collapse. Credit markets seized up, policymakers were panicked, the stock market was plummeting, and other big banks feared mass withdrawals would leave them ruined as well.

That month, 117,373 people in Allegheny County were on Food Stamps. In the five years since, that number has grown by about 38% - 45,000 people.

Five years ago, the economy was in free fall, with monthly job losses for September at 432,000 growing to a total of 6.8 million by the end of 2009.

One result of the collapse in jobs and earnings, of course, was collapsing tax revenue. The Federal government’s income plummeted by more than $400 billion from 2008 to 2009. (It did not recover to pre-recession levels until this year.)

Nevertheless, in response to the massive economic emergency, the federal government had to increase its spending: big bailouts of banking and insurance giants-  to protect the financial system from even greater disaster; Recovery Act spending to  avoid a massive economic depression; automatic increases in programs like Unemployment compensation, Food Stamps, and Medicaid as the number of eligible people in need grew at an unprecedented rate.

Yet many leading economists like Nobel-prize winner Paul Krugman said the government wasn’t spending enough. More was needed to help those on Main St., not just Wall St. They predicted, amid the rightwing shrieks of “won’t somebody think of the deficit?!” that a gradual, lukewarm, and incomplete recovery would follow.

He was right. Today, Gross Domestic Project has fully recovered, General Motors ($1.4 billion in profits last quarter) and Bank of America ($3.6 billion in profits for Q2 of 2013, up 63% from the year before) have recovered, the stock market has recovered. Even the federal budget is recovering, with the deficit expected to fall by about half this year. But poverty has not.

According to the most recent data available, 6.2 million more Americans were living in poverty in 2012 than in 2008.

So, yes, food stamp participation and spending are up. And that’s the part that Eric Cantor and most Congressional Republicans are so angry about. “Spending is out of control!” “The safety net has become a hammock!” “$20 billion in food stamp cuts aren’t nearly enough!”

Yesterday in the House of Representatives, a narrow majority consisting entirely of Republicans passed the second half of the Food and Farm bill that, if approved by the Senate, would kick an estimated 3.8 million people off food stamps. An estimated $40 billion would be “saved” by taking food out of the mouths of hungry Americans. Hundreds of thousands of children could also lose their free school meals. The law imposes “work requirements” on the small segment of recipients who are the able-bodied unemployed, but offers them no help in finding jobs or in creating new jobs for them to find.

The Senate, which passed “only” $4.5 billion in SNAP cuts in their version of the bill, won’t likely approve ten times that amount, but now the negotiation begins far further to the right, increasing the likelihood of harsher measures and further cuts, or of no new Food and Farm Bill at all. 

The House is leading the country over a cliff. Its leaders clearly have no real plan to reduce poverty; only to reduce help to people in poverty. They steadily and insistently march us towards austerity, balanced-budgets, tax cuts, and cuts to government spending – strategies that have failed to improve tough economic conditions over and over and over again in modern history and across the globe.

The House leadership argues that because the hedge fund managers and Wall Street financiers that CAUSED the great recession have recovered, the victims of the recession – without economic shelter when the sky fell - must have recovered too. Those 6.2 million more poor people should just “go get a job.” Unemployment has fallen slightly to 7.3%, but those same Republicans are only too happy to crow that the drop isn’t due to more jobs but to more people utterly discouraged about finding work. “Thanks, Obama!”.

So which is it? The economy is still in a tailspin, or the poor are lazy? Only the wealthy have recovered, or the poor are lazy? Most new jobs pay poverty wages, or the poor are lazy? We’ve shredded the social safety net, unions, and our public schools, or the poor are lazy?

The facts are clear, but whatever you choose to believe, say no to food stamp cuts. Enough bullying of working families, children, the elderly, and the disabled. The smartest way to reduce long-term spending on food stamps is to reduce the need – to reduce poverty and inequality. We have the means and we have the wealth, but Congress has neither the compassion nor the will to help those in need.

Get involved. Raise your voice. Tell Congress it’s time for a new direction.

--Ken Regal, Executive Director

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