Hidden punishment of the poor

February 12, 2009

BARACK OBAMA'S shameful capitulation to the Republicans over the debate around the stimulus bill has, unfortunately, done more than simply revive the fortunes of an almost irrelevant party. It has also allowed the debate around the bill to degenerate into something from bizarro world. A country that elected a man who said he wanted to redistribute the wealth is now engaged in a debate about whether the stimulus bill is spending too much and should include more tax cuts.

Since Obama and the Democrats have allowed the Republicans to dominate the debate, the kind of items that were placed on the chopping board as government "waste" are $14 billion for education and $150 million for funding the Violence Against Women Act.

Since the debate over the bill is so backwards, it has obscured the fact that there are a number of items in the stimulus bill that do deserve to be cut. Chief among these are various allotments for law enforcement. The stimulus bill contains $1 billion for the "Community Oriented Policing" program, to add 100,000 more police officers to America's streets (a particularly sick provision, coming as it does so soon after the police murders of Oscar Grant and Adolph Grimes).

It also contains over $1 billion in funding for various prison initiatives. This money is going to be spent incarcerating people like Roy Brown, a 54-year-old homeless man from Shreveport, Louisiana. In December 2007, Brown walked into a Capital One bank with one of his hands under his jacket and announced he was robbing the place. The cashier gave him three stacks of bills, but he only took a single $100 bill. The next day, he surrendered to police voluntarily, telling them he took the money for a stay in a detox center because he was homeless and hungry and had no other place to go. Recently, he pleaded guilty in court and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The state of Louisiana spends $12,951 per inmate it incarcerates. That means, over the term of his sentence, the state will pay approximately $200,000 keeping the public "safe" from Roy Brown.

Stories like these are some of the best examples of government waste out there, but you're not going to be hearing them as long as the Democrats let the Republicans set the terms of the debate.
Paul Heideman, Madison, Wis.

Further Reading

From the archives