The deadly details of the Republican budget

The Republicans' 2018 budget plan robs workers of the safety net they need to survive unstable economic times, explains Elizabeth Schulte.

Standing up against budget cuts in Louisiana (Rande Archer | flickr)Standing up against budget cuts in Louisiana (Rande Archer | flickr)

WHILE THE Republican tax plan--a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom to the very tip-top of U.S. society--dominates the news, another massive swindle is being carried out against workers and the poor in the form of cuts to the social safety net.

With the end of the year looming, congressional Republicans are attempting to push through a budget that would deliver what amounts to a one-two punch--huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, to be paid for by even deeper cuts to social programs that the working class depends on.

If the Republican tax rip-off goes into effect in the form that is being discussed now, the wealthiest 0.1 percent of the population--those who already own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of the population--could see an annual average tax cut of more than $1 million by the end of the decade.

As for the rest of us, the taxes of some 30 percent of people who between $50,000 and $150,000 a year would increase by an average of more than $1,000 a year by 10 years from now, according to the Tax Policy Center.

While the Trump administration is helping to rewrite the book on how much is an acceptable giveaway to the 1 Percent, many of the proposed cuts to virtually every program except the Pentagon have been on the Republican Party's wish list for a very long time.

House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, for instance, has long had his sights on dismantling anti-poverty programs. He claims that what poor people really need isn't "handouts," but stricter work requirements to keep them on the straight and narrow.

According to Ryan and others like him, the government's War on Poverty of the 1960s--which led to the creation of programs like food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, in response to overwhelming immiseration in the U.S.--contributed to a supposed "culture of poverty."

"We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular," Ryan said in 2014 on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson declaring the War on Poverty, "of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."

For politicians like Ryan, who also thrive on scapegoating and racism to push through their mean-spirited agendas, this budget is another opportunity to get closer to their goal of eliminating social welfare programs.

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WHILE ALL the details of the budget plan weren't yet finalized, House Republicans were definitely proposing deep cuts--some $5 trillion--to "mandatory spending" programs, including about $1 trillion from Medicaid.

The Medicaid health care program for the poor provides coverage to some 29 million children and more than 16 million adults. In a typical state, the program covers 75 percent of births of poor children and 49 percent of births overall.

It also provides necessary health care to seniors and people with disabilities, including those who need long-term care. Without Medicaid, many people would be forced to depend on family--or would have nothing to depend on at all.

The Medicare program for the elderly could also see cuts of some $470 billion if congressional Republicans get away with a plan to convert it to a "premium support system." This would replace Medicare's guarantee of health coverage with a voucher that could be used either to buy private health insurance or a form of traditional Medicare.

There are other potential effects on health care hidden in this budget. The congressional budget reconciliation process opens the door to the possibility of pursuing that other favorite Republican crusade: gutting the Affordable Care Act signed into law by Barack Obama.

AS the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes:

A budget resolution is a plan, not a law, so its most immediate consequence is its "reconciliation instructions. These instructions establish a fast-track process allowing the Senate to pass subsequent legislation with just 50 votes...Nothing in the budget would prevent them from coupling health care cuts with tax cuts if they conclude that such a package could attract 50 votes.

On the Senate Republicans' budget chopping block were more programs that aid the most vulnerable over the next decade: $3 billion from the early childhood learning program Head Start; $6.5 billion from Women Infants and Children (WIC), which provides help to low-income pregnant women and infants; more than $4 billion from affordable housing assistance and the Section 8 rental program; $4 billion from Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program; and a 33 percent cut to Pell grants, which help working-class students pay for college.

The congressional plan, like the plan the White House proposed earlier this year, would also cut "non-defense discretionary" programs, such as job training, child care and agencies charged with protecting workers from safety hazards and unfair labor practices of their employers.

The cuts that the Republicans want to make to these programs now, some $660 billion, come on top of reductions that were approved in 2010, but have yet to be implemented.

By 2027, overall non-defense discretionary funding would be 18 percent below its 2017 level and 29 percent below its 2010 level, after adjusting for inflation, according to the CBPP--and "would fall as a share of the economy to levels likely not seen since the Hoover administration," the center concluded.

Remember Herbert Hoover? He's the president that "Hoovervilles"--tent cities for the homeless--were named after.

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THE SOCIAL programs facing the budget ax have already had their capacity to aid those in need severely eroded over the years.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced welfare during the Clinton administration, is one example.

The Clinton administration replaced welfare with block grants to the states and imposed strict work rules and other restrictions on recipients. These "reforms" didn't work so well for low-income workers trying to support their families during relatively good economic times of the 1990s--and they certainly fail to serve families who have a harder time getting by today.

The CBPP reports that cash assistance benefits for the nation's poorest families with children fell in purchasing power this year, and are now at least 20 percent below their 1996 levels, after adjusting for inflation, in tens of states. "For 99 percent of recipients nationally," the CBPP reported, "the purchasing power of their benefits is below the level in 1996, when the welfare reform law created."

The effect of these cuts is exacerbated by the decline in other benefits for the poor. "Between 1970 and 1996, the value of cash assistance benefits for poor families with children fell by more than 40 percent in real terms in two-thirds of the states," writes the CBPP.

As always, there's one area of the government that doesn't have to worry about budget cuts. Republicans plan to devote even more money to the military and defense. In November, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, funneling some $700 billion to defense.

The defense bill provides money for 90 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 20 more than Trump asked for--as well as 24 F/A-18 Super Hornet jet fighters, 10 more than he requested.

The bill includes money for as many as 28 additional Ground-Based Interceptors--anti-missile weapons that can be launched from underground silos in Alaska in the event of a detected air strike by North Korea. They are supposed to directly hit an enemy missile outside the Earth's atmosphere, obliterating it by force of impact.

U.S. military spending is roughly the same size as the world's next seven-largest military budgets combined, according to the National Priorities Project. The amount spent by the U.S. on wars since September 11 and the beginning of the "war on terror" will top more than $5.6 trillion by the end of the fiscal year.

The defense authorization bill was quickly approved in the Senate by a voice vote--even though a 2011 law caps the defense budget at $549 billion, well below what the act would cost.

So while Congress can break the rules it voted on to spend well over what it's allowed to on missiles and a never-ending supply of deadly weapons, when it comes to spending on U.S. workers, the budget has to balance, even if that means cuts, cuts and more cuts from social programs.

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ANY NEW spending reductions will have a dramatic affect on poor and working-class people. They certainly fly in the face of Donald Trump's bragging on the campaign trail that he was the candidate who would make the lives of American workers better.

There's evidence that U.S. workers, some who even may have voted for Trump, are seeing the contradictions.

According to a survey conducted by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research about the proposed new tax plan, majorities of both Republicans and Democrats said they thought the middle class and small businesses pay too much in taxes, and that the wealthy and large corporations pay too little.

Less than half of people--just 43 percent--among those who have heard at least a little bit about the Trump tax plan think it would help workers. Some 60 percent said the tax cut proposal would benefit the rich.

And on the question of social spending, the time-honored conservative slogan adopted by Trump that people "should pay their own way" could be wearing out its welcome.

In November elections in Maine, some 59 percent of voters turned out to support expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Maine's Republican governor was one of nine governors or legislatures that decided not to expand Medicaid under the ACA--but the people of Maine voted that down in a referendum.

At a time when the divide between rich and poor is growing ever wider, we need greater government protections for workers facing employers who--like Donald Trump throughout his business career--don't want to play by the rules.

But Congress is doubling down on the decades-long attempt to shred what little social safety net we have in the U.S.--and the impact is being felt. Trudy E. Bell, a 67-year-old widow diagnosed with Parkinson's disease last year, described this well in a guest column for Cleveland.com.

First, the financial meltdown of 2008 to 2009 wiped out half my retirement savings, which have only recently recovered to their 2007 levels. As a result, it was clear that I would need to work until age 70 not only to maximize Social Security benefits, but also to make up for the economy's depriving me of the last anticipated doubling of my nest egg.

However, the tremor in my right hand...slowed and impaired my handwriting so much that I could no longer take fast notes at conferences or interviews, forcing my retirement as a research-science writer in 2016. I now get by on Social Security and IRA income totaling only two-thirds of my final salary...

All my life, I've done everything right: I've worked full time for 45-plus years. I've lived frugally. I've saved for retirement. I've never asked for a handout. I've done good for the world through education. For what? To watch the bottom drop out of my nest egg, the supports kicked out from under medical security, and--with the proposed trillion-dollar cut to Medicaid--the prospect of no potential safety net should I fall into destitution, which now feels almost guaranteed for me and millions like me?

Both of Congress's tax cut proposals are nothing less than Robin Hood in reverse: robbing from the middle class and poor to give to the rich. When is being a billionaire already not rich enough? Must they also come after my widow's mite and my daughter's future?

There's more than enough money to provide for the millions of people who need assistance. But the people sitting in the halls of government can't see past their own devotion to business to do anything about it.