The relentless focus on federal budget-cutting has burned up so much of the country's political oxygen that it nearly choked off dialogue on a more immediate, urgent concern: poverty.
Two well-known Americans tried to move this point to the front of the bus last month with their "Poverty Tour: A Call to Conscience." [...]
The instigators of the bus tour, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton professor Cornel West, did the nation a favor by turning the spotlight onto the very real needs of poor Americans. They feel "invisible" and "disposable," Smiley said during the tour, which ran from Minnesota to Memphis, Tenn.
The sentiment is not surprising. The poor have been left behind by what little economic recovery there has been since the 2008 crash. And in Washington's deficit-obsessed political climate, the talk is all about slashing government — not poverty rates.
Millions of people are without jobs, homes or hopeful futures. Minorities are disproportionately afflicted: Blacks and Hispanics experience unemployment and poverty at far higher rates than the rest of the population does. [...]
[T]he "Call to Conscience" tour was constructive because it pushed the problem of poverty back into the center of a national conversation that had been hijacked by fiscal hawks who see only the cost, not the value, of government.
Unlike the abstractions of long-term deficit projections, poverty is a tangible, here-and-now reality. The country waged a "war on poverty" in the 1960s, but the problem — fed by structural changes in the U.S. economy, policy choices, social shifts and other factors — grew in ensuing decades. Unfair mortgage practices and the epic recession triggered in 2008 exacerbated the trend, wiping out years of progress.
Today, disparities in income, educational attainment, home ownership and family wealth are growing. The rich are getting richer, while the ranks of the poor are poised to expand as government shrinks and job creation remains stagnant.
The employment cuts are likely to have an outsized effect on minority communities, according to the group United for a Fair Economy's "State of the Dream 2011" report. The federal government is an important source of employment for blacks, data indicate.
Rich vs. poor inequities, and the hopelessness that can accompany them, are poisonous to democracy. In the final analysis they are likely to be every bit as destructive, if not more so, than large budget deficits.
Nearly 15 percent of the population — including an estimated 15 million children — live below the federal poverty line, which is about $22,500 a year for a household of four. "Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses," according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, of the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.
"Using this standard, 42 percent of children live in low-income families," the organization reported. Rates are highest among black, Latino, and American Indian children, data show. [...]
A nation that looks to tax cuts and budget slashing as the answer to 44 million living in deep poverty — many with little hope of overcoming it — is either deluded or uncaring.
Neither of those terms represents the America we know and love.
We are a nation based on the principles of equality and opportunity. Let's live up to them by confronting the factors that lead to entrenched poverty.
Promoting "personal responsibility" is an important key to this challenge. But so is government, which can help communities get through the worst of times and build better foundations for the future.
Economic growth that provides jobs for unemployed and underemployed Americans is vital. But we must not pretend that poverty can be reduced by putting government on a starvation diet.
The issue of poverty belongs at the center of the nation's political priorities, not at the fringe. Smiley and West raised its profile. Their bus tour has ended, but we hope that a new era of understanding has begun.
Corporations are regular targets for attack by the progressive movement, and rightfully so. The biggest among them have, through morally unconscionable business practices and political actions, wrought havoc on the world — all in the name of profit.
Despite the neoliberal crusade to codify the notion of corporate personhood, it's the human beings that make business decisions who should be held accountable for negative social and environmental impacts of their businesses. Dave Johnson of the Campaign for America's Future explains:
"It is the business leaders, not the companies, who make decisions and want things and do things. Companies are just things that don't "want" any more than they "do." They don't "think." They don't "decide." They don't "respond." Sentient entities want and do. It is the people who make decisions want and do things. Companies are not sentient entities any more than chairs are."
But, does the responsibility of corporate leaders — to act in the interests of the corporation and the shareholders — have to be to ensure profit alone?
A movement is brewing to redefine corporate purpose. B Corporations, or Benefit Corporations, seek to "use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems." What sets B corporations apart from traditional corporations is that companies are required to create a material positive impact on society and the environment and are held to higher standards of accountability and transparency.
Under the B corporation model, businesses don't only account for the needs of shareholders; certified companies are mindful of all stakeholders, which also includes workers, consumers and even the communities in which they operate.
This effort has been a long time coming. A poll taken over a decade ago showed 95 percent of people believe corporations should sacrifice profits to improve conditions for workers and communities. Either those results slipped through the cracks or some of the largest U.S. corporations simply don't give a rat's ass.
Source: 2000 Businessweek/Harris poll
Five states have already passed legislation recognizing B corporations, and six more, including economic giants, California and New York, have it on the table. Even as legislative efforts are launched in every state, the B corp model will still face legal tests to expand its reach. But, Good magazine's Tim Fernholz is optimistic:
"[T]he momentum behind the legal changes—and the bipartisan majorities that have so far enacted them—signal the beginnings of a sea change in our expectations for the private sector."
Visit www.bcorporation.net to learn more. To get involved in the sustainable business movement, check out our friends at the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE).
In response to the push for spending cuts to limit growth in the federal deficit, MoveOn.org, United for a Fair Economy, and Rebuild the Dream are trying to build support for a different approach, with new revenue and more stimulus spending to create jobs. Interview on BNN News with the Senior Organizer on Federal Tax Policy from United for a Fair Economy, Lee Farris.
After Warren Buffett called for the federal government to raise taxes on the super wealthy this week, Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann had a suggestion for the billionaire: Send any unwanted money to the U.S. Treasury.
“Mr. Buffett, write a big check today,” Bachmann said. “There’s nothing you have to wait for.”
The Minnesota congresswoman is correct. The federal government has had a law on the books for 50 years that allows anyone to open up his checkbook, write out a donation payable to the Bureau of the Public Debt, and send it to a post office box in Parkersburg, W.Va. — or make an online payment at www.pay.gov.
Through the first three quarters of the current fiscal year, Americans had donated about $2 million to the fund — compared with $2.8 million in donations for all of fiscal 2010.
That amounts to roughly one ten-thousandth of a percent— that is, 0.0001% — of the federal debt.
The money is set aside and ultimately used to pay the principal on maturing Treasury bills that are issued as debt to finance government operations, according to McKayla Braden, spokeswoman for the debt bureau.
“We send everybody a thank you,” Braden said, noting that the agency gets more donations whenever there’s a public crisis like a natural disaster or the summer deadlock than over raising the debt ceiling.
But millionaires and billionaires who, like Buffett, support higher taxes on the super-rich, say voluntary donations won’t solve the country’s debt problems. Even Buffett’s fortune of approximately $50 billion amounts to less than half a percent of the total.
“It’s better to have a policy than to just bank on individual, idiosyncratic discretion,” said Judy Pigott, a Seattle heiress to a trucking fortune. She is also a member of Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, which advocates for raising taxes on those who earn more than $1 million a year.
“We all benefit from being part of our country ... and those of us who have abundant financial resources also have abundant privileges,” Pigott said.
Relying on voluntary donations wouldn’t bring in a reliable amount of money that could match revenue from raising taxes across the board, said Lee Farris, a tax policy coordinator for United for a Fair Economy.
A subgroup of that organization, Responsible Wealth, focuses on raising taxes on the wealthy.
“I’m sure Rep. Bachmann would probably not agree that all people who owe money to the U.S. Treasury should make voluntary contributions,” said Responsible Wealth member John Russell, a real estate developer in Portland, Ore. “There’s a fundamental issue of fairness, and nobody wants to be treated in a manner that’s different than other people.”
RW director Mike Lapham and businessman/RW member Jim Mann were invited onto SoCal public radio to combat baseless arguments from the economics naysayers of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR). The pair added yet more legs to the Buffett argument for higher taxes on the wealthy. Mann also noted that historically high economic inequality must be strongly considered as we move forward.
Now, Congressional "deficit hawks" are demanding major spending cuts to some of the most vital government programs like Medicare and Social Security. But, a closer look at the country’s balance sheet shows that it’s not spending that’s out of control, it’s revenue.
Federal income tax rates are at their lowest since the mid-1950s. Keeping taxes as low as they currently are doesn't make any sense (especially for the wealthiest taxpayers), but lowering them further is pure insanity. Be that as it may, that’s precisely what Republicans are proposing.
- …make $5.8 billion in spending cuts or implement a 2% increase in taxes for the top 5% of income earners?
- …save $41.6 billion per year by increasing the retirement age two years, or increase the corporate tax rate by 1.5%?
- …cut corporate tax rates by 10% as proposed by Senator Ryan in his budget proposal, or completely cover all of Medicare’s current costs?
- …cut Pell Grant funding for college students by $8 billion over 10 years or increase taxes on wealthiest 1% by a measly 0.05%?
Taxpayers provide billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the country's largest corporations. These behemoth companies — often referred to as "job creators" by conservative talking heads — then make billions of dollars in profits and disburse billions of dollars in dividends to shareholders (the owners). But, what do taxpayers get in return? More jobs?
Sources Used: 2008-2010 Annual Reports from Bank of America, General Electric, Chevron, Exxon, and Boeing; Public Advocate for the City of New York.
When it comes to telling the story of our dire economy, it seems Republican politicians have lifted their strategy from the Wizard of Oz rather than a political playbook. But rather than accept the line that poor people are to blame for our mounting federal deficit, we should pull back the curtain on the real culprits.
It's an iconic scene: when Dorothy discovers the true identity of the Wonderful Wizard, he frantically exclaims, 'Pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain!' The banter around the federal budget and reducing the deficit is no different. Republicans are the man behind the curtain, blowing smoke and posing as the all-knowing wizards of economic policy. Meanwhile, they have created a mess out of our economy through massive Bush-era tax breaks for corporations and wealthy people; tax breaks that have been a primary cause for the deficit. But rather than acknowledging the role of tax breaks for the wealthy in our economic nosedive, these politicians distract us with smoke and mirror-lies about the strains low-income people have caused on our economy.
There's no denying the irony. Conservatives scream and shout about reducing the deficit, demand cuts in programs that fund services for the poor, and refuse to consider any tax increases for wealthy people and corporations. Yet, these politicians point to low-income folks as the culprits behind our economic mess, even though they’re not the ones cutting jobs across the US, shipping jobs oversees, and evading taxes while making record profits.
Our economic challenges have nothing to do with how the government helps poor people survive ("survive" being a key word; as opposed to a cool word like "thrive," but that’s a discussion for another day). The deficit did not reach this point because of over-spending on programs for poor people. Our budget is in shambles because of ill-informed, selfish decision-making by wealthy people who influence policy. Unlike millionaires and billionaires, normal working folks can't afford hefty election donations, never mind hire high-paid lobbyists dedicated specifically to guard their bank accounts.
All of this financial influence has given wealthy people more access to legislatures. When George Bush Jr. took office he began with a budget surplus. Since 2001, tax breaks have consistently favored the wealthy, allowing them not to have to pay their fair share of taxes- which helps explain why our deficit has ballooned. Today, Republicans continue to fight tooth and nail for tax breaks for their funders, breaks that are meant to somehow “create jobs.” In actuality, these loopholes have done quite the opposite. And now that Republicans have created a mess, all they can do is propose program cuts that will negatively impact poor people; many of whom didn't have have a strong seat at the decision-making table to begin with.
Another example of the 'man behind the curtain' at work? The estate tax. Since passing the Bush tax cuts in 2001, conservatives have waged a war on state and federal estate tax, going to drastic measures to reduce and even eliminate the estate tax completely. Yet, the estate tax only affects the wealthiest 0.27 percent of people, and has the potential to bring in billions in tax revenues. In other words, a tax that would impact very few people and bring in billions seems like a scarecrow (i.e. no-brainer).
Instead, wealthy conservatives are acting all 'cowardly lion'; cutting services for low-income people, fighting to reduce taxes on themselves, and shifting the responsibility for paying taxes to middle and lower income people who can’t afford it.
It's time we pull back the curtain on our elected officials and demand better. We must stop penalizing low-income families who are not the culprits of the demise of our economy. How much longer will we allow Republicans to keep villain-izing poor people while telling America to ignore the true masterminds. Until that happens, they will continue to stand behind the curtain, sneakily licking the federal revenue plate clean.
The estate tax is quietly under siege in the debt ceiling debate. Since the debt ceiling is the total amount of money that the government is allowed to borrow, you might wonder, what does that have to do with the estate tax?
Put simply, it's a matter of cash flow. If we fail to raise the debt ceiling, the government will default on its obligations for the first time in U.S. history. As of August 2, 2011, we will no longer be able to borrow money to finance existing commitments, such as military salaries and Medicare benefits. Historically, Congress has always raised the debt ceiling when needed without batting an eye. But today, the issue is stuck in a quagmire of political bargaining and conservative catch-phrasing, such as “tax breaks” and “spending cuts.” These so-called “tax breaks” are directed at the wealthy, of course, and often in the form of eliminating the estate tax.
Indeed, Republican politicians are making tough demands in debt ceiling negotiations (perhaps it’s a last-ditch effort to strengthen future candidacies). Many are refusing to pass an increase in the debt ceiling unless there is an agreement to slash federal spending. They claim that the solution to current budget woes comes from spending cuts alone. But how can we expect to improve our financial situation without increased revenue flows? One key source of revenue is a stronger estate tax, which has garnered fierce conservative opposition.
Although we don’t know exactly what the Republican debt-ceiling proposals entail, recent Republican legislation gives us a pretty clear picture of their intentions. One budget plan (that was later rejected) proposed a complete elimination of the estate tax and corporate income tax. Another amendment (to a bill ending ethanol tax credits, no less) would have completely removed the estate tax. In a time of debt, we cannot afford to lose valuable tax revenue from the nation’s wealthiest.
Last week, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) walked out of bipartisan budget talks led by Vice President Joe Biden because of the stalemate on tax increases and spending cuts between Democrats and Republicans. But how much of a threat do the Republicans actually pose to increasing the debt ceiling?
Vocal support for an increase comes from the International Monetary Fund, which has urged Congress to raise the U.S. debt ceiling to avoid a financial meltdown with international implications, as well as from Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke.
And don’t forget one of the most powerful lobby groups on the Hill: Wall Street. Failure to increase the debt ceiling would greatly harm the U.S. financial system and perhaps lead to the demise of major U.S. banks. Wall Street executives have no intention of letting Republican politicians endanger the international power of the U.S. financial system (or their hefty bonuses).
So, even if the estate tax isn’t in the headlines, it is important to remember that the estate tax is under attack today. Call your congressman and urge him or her to vote for an increase in the debt ceiling without giving into unreasonable Republican demands. We simply cannot afford to eliminate the estate tax.
When you think of the America, what comes to mind? Opportunity? Wealth? Equality? If it’s equality that comes to mind, then you should know that America may not be as equal as you think, according to the CIA and United Nations.
American cities with the most income inequality include some of our largest, such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and Miami. New York City is the ninth most unequal city on the planet. International cities with similar levels of income inequality include Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Nairobi, Kenya, and Santiago, Chile.
But those are just cities, right? Let's see how we, as a country, compare internationally.
The U.S. is ranked 39 out of 136 (with Sweden ranked 136 and the most equal). Some of the countries ranked most closely to the U.S. in terms of family income distribution include Rwanda (35), the Phillippines (36), Uganda (37), Jamaica (38) and Iran (42).
More than 70% of the countries measured have more equitable distribution of family income than the U.S. That includes Cambodia (48), Russia (51), China (52), Vietnam (77), India (79), Egypt (90), France (98), Pakistan (109), and over 85 other countries.
Moreover, in 2007, the United States had the fourth highest rate of income inequality of all OECD countries. What’s even worse? We also had the fourth highest rate of relative poverty; over 6% worse than the average country.
Okay, so we’ve got income inequality. But, why is that so bad? Well, let’s take a look at what inequality has led to:
- People in more unequal societies live shorter lives. The United States is number 50 out of 222 in the world in terms of life expectancy.
- Children in more unequal societies do worse in school. Out of 34 OECD countries, we are 14th in reading skills, 17th in science, and 25th in math.
- More people are imprisoned in an unequal society. We have the highest incarceration rates in the world as well as the most people in prisons.
- People in more unequal societies are more likely to experience mental illness. In 2003, 17-29% of Americans suffered with mental illness.
- More children die in infancy in unequal societies. We are number 176 of all 222 countries.
- Obesity is more common is unequal societies. Obesity rates in the United States are the highest of all OECD countries.
- Teenage mothers are more common in unequal societies. Teenage pregnancy rates in the United States are the highest of all fully-industrialized nations.
It seems extreme income inequality is a pretty precarious position, and it has already made for some devastating results. It’s time to take a stand before it gets even worse.