I’ve been thinking a lot about fairness lately. It’s the Word of the Month right now at my son’s school — a public school, where, contrary to the railings of conservative pundits, he receives steady doses of “character education” and “values education.” This instruction comes not only from studying great people’s lives and deeds, but also from regular lessons on specific moral values that are taught by the guidance counselor, posted on the walls, and spoken over the intercom.
Fairness is also what’s on my mind when I pick up the budget proposal that President Bush just sent to Congress. As even elementary students know, fairness means that people are treated equally — that no one is given special privileges or allowed to shirk consequences. Fairness is a situation where all people have commensurate opportunities. But our current Administration repeatedly un-levels the playing field, blocks the fair shot, and withholds the fair share. The budget that President Bush sent to Congress includes deep cuts in that wedge of the federal pie called “domestic programs.” These include both entitlement programs like food stamps and Medicaid, which float to meet fluctuating needs, and discretionary programs, which are set at fixed levels every year. Both are slated for substantial cuts that will be achieved by immediate, substantial reductions as well as by caps that would lock in their funding for years to come. As an example, by 2010 elementary and secondary education in Arkansas will be cut by $110.4 million. This includes radical cuts to education for the disadvantaged, special education, and school improvement money.
The cuts are not only deep, but broad in scope: farm subsidies, rural development programs, conservation and environmental protection programs, food stamps, WIC, job readiness programs, community food and nutrition, housing vouchers, utility assistance, Head Start, police community development, and community services are all on the cutting block. Whatever happened to compassion (Word of the Month for December)? These cuts are aimed at middle- and low-income taxpayers as if to punish them for not being well-off. Those most affected are the same people who disproportionately send their children to war — people who were not born to privilege and who, despite hard work and regular bill-paying, will find it harder to acquire basic financial security.
The Word of the Month for November was honesty. In several ways this budget is less than straightforward. First, many of the cuts the president has proposed are designed to appear less severe on paper, because they take the form of structural changes in individual programs (such as collapsing programs into others, or consigning them as block grants to the states for state legislators to decide what to do with them). This allows the federal government to wash its hands of many crucial programs, ducking the hassle and expense of running them while denying any blame for their demise. Also, certain truncated programs have been given false and misleading names, such as the “Strengthening America’s Communities” Act, which actually eliminates $9 billion in community services. A third disingenuous strategy of the administration is subverting established congressional procedures. In order to push the cuts through on a fast track, Republicans are using something called the budget reconciliation resolution, which was created to speed budget decisions back when members of Congress were truly trying to balance the budget by restraining spending and raising taxes. Now they are using this mechanism to expedite their gouging of civic services in hopes that the public won’t have time to notice or respond.
In the next few weeks Republicans are going to spew a lot of verbiage about so-called waste and fraud in domestic programs. They’re going to holler about the need for tightening our belts. Ironically, though, these program cuts have come about as a result of an unprecedented, deficit-bloating removal of taxes on the richest. Those who have profited from the largesse of our economy and the bounty of our natural resources are shirking their taxpaying duties. They’re not tightening their own belts, they’re loosening them as fast as they can. And to give them a tax break — to lighten millionaires’ and multimillionaires’ tax burden by an average $136,295 apiece — we are giving up the core health of our schools, our natural heritage, and our community.
At the urging of the administration, Congress is considering making these tax cuts more extensive and permanent. Which reminds me, I do give them high marks on one character trait. That would be perseverance — the Word of the Month for January. The majority leaders are certainly persevering in their mission of making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and our nation unstable and disliked.
Coulter is the executive director of the Arkansas Hunger Coalition and an instructor in the English Department at Hendrix College.