Blog: Fair Tax System for a Faithful Budget

Carolyn Burstein
Apr 13, 2015

Unfortunately, both the Senate and the House have proposed budgets for Fiscal Year 2016 that would drastically cut critical programs that have successfully helped people survive and move out of dire poverty—programs like Medicaid, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), low-income tax credits and, of course, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In addition, painful cuts are also proposed for education, housing, child care, Head Start, home energy assistance, meals for seniors, and many others on the domestic side of the budget. There is no need to make foolish and unsustainable cuts in the area of human needs and then add funding to an already well-funded military.

Emily Badger, a blogger for The Washington Post, calls our attention to the “double standard” that makes low-income people prove that they are worthy of government benefits, while the rest of the population, who receive four times as many benefits through farm subsidies, student loans and mortgage tax breaks, to name a few, feel that they receive nothing from the government.

The states of Missouri and Kansas are each trying to impose unprecedented restrictions on major federal programs for low-income workers. In the Missouri legislature, one infamous proposal is an attempt to ban purchases of cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood and steak using food stamps. Not only does this proposal demonstrate an effort to criminalize people in poverty, but it also exhibits a lack of understanding about the food stamp program and how little the SNAP program actually pays the 46.5 million Americans who receive them. The average of about $33 per week is hardly enough to feed one person for a week, let alone a family. On this meager allotment (already cut in 2013) it is nearly impossible to purchase anything fancy or non-essential. According to 2013 figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the food stamp program has an extremely low fraud rate – about 1 % over the last 15 years.

Many in the Missouri legislature, who are debating this bill, seem to lack an understanding of the types of pressures low-income families feel. Their choices may be: should I pay the rent or buy my child a pair of shoes for school? Not whether I should buy steak or lobster. The Center for American Progress (CAP) is right on target when they say that increasing the incomes for families who use SNAP should lift people out of poverty; then they won’t need SNAP benefits.

We need not worry that Missouri will be able to pass their proposal because the USDA does not allow bans other than their own on what those using SNAP may buy. It is doubtful that Missouri would acquiesce in a complete dismantling of their food stamp program by attacking the USDA standards.

Kansas, on the other hand, is attempting to curtail welfare (now called TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients from using their benefits at movie theaters, nail salons, pools and spas, liquor stores, jewelry stores, casinos and racing facilities, tattoo and piercing parlors, cruise ships and other locations. But the same lack of common sense prevails. Their proposal also imposes hard caps on the length of time recipients can receive benefits. Kansas, under Governor Sam Brownback, has already put in place changes that have led to more than 23,000 persons leaving the TANF program despite a steadily increasing poverty rate in the state.

Here the problem is quite different than that of the SNAP program. When federal welfare reform was enacted in the 1990s, states were given wide leeway to set up their TANF programs.

This reform means that states have considerable latitude to propose changes to TANF.

Think Progress, an offshoot of CAP, makes a couple of significant points about TANF today. The organization says that today only 26% of eligible poor families receive welfare, down from 72% in 1996. In addition, Think Progress says that the state of Maine examined the amount of abuse in TANF and found that less than 1% of all purchases with TANF funds were made at bars, sports bars or strip clubs, and there is no way to know what was bought.

One has to ask what is the point of these restrictions? It would appear that, as Emily Badger maintains in her blog, those who are poor and vulnerable are being forced to prove they’re worthy of government benefits. In other words, there is now a double standard for them that doesn’t exist for those who receive other types of government benefits.

Oregon is proposing that people on SNAP be unable to buy “junk food,” while several other states are considering drug-testing TANF recipients. With respect to Oregon’s proposal – federal reports have consistently found that people on food stamps are less likely to imbibe sugary drinks or eat salty snacks than those with higher incomes. Also, data on drug use do not demonstrate that poor people are more prolific users of drugs than those who do not receive TANF. In fact, what data do exist demonstrate that the opposite is the case. Again, one is forced to conclude that the real purpose is to make explicit the government benefits received by low-income people by showcasing a few egregious examples of waste, fraud or abuse, while the benefits enjoyed by the rest of us are kept intact.

Those with a more sinister bent of mind might conclude that the real purpose of these proposals is to make government aid for people at the economic margins as onerous as possible, a throwback to the Victorian era. Or perhaps this season is merely a dress rehearsal for worse to come in the area of human needs.

Emily Badger draws attention to the work of the Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who showed in her 2011 book, The Submerged State, how invisible government policies actually undermine democracy by making Americans hostile to the common good as well as to government benefits as a general principle, even though upper-income people receive numerous government “goodies.” Mettler called this the “submerged state.”

Medicare benefits and tuition and healthcare tax breaks that middle and high-income people receive are less visible than the federal subsidies for low-income people. One result of this reality is that it compels many Americans to be less tolerant of programs that assist low-income people. Such submerged policies obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the private sector. They also conceal the massive advantages given to powerful interests and the most affluent Americans. All of this tends to exacerbate inequality. As Ms. Badger says, “We begrudge them their housing vouchers, for instance, even though government spends about four times as much subsidizing housing for upper-income homeowners.”

This blog was called “Everyone paying a fair share of taxes should yield a budget that supports the common good,” indicating that, as we approach federal income tax day on April 15, we all should be gratified to pay our taxes since the government requires reasonable revenue to support its needs. One of government’s vital concerns that is easy for some to overlook is to promote the common good, and that means providing a more equitable and secure society for those less fortunate than middle and upper-income people.

We need a budget that focuses on the human needs of all Americans. For those living in or near poverty, we believe that government must strengthen its social safety net. We also believe that it is not helpful to draw useless distinctions among those who receive government benefits, as this blog has described, although we believe more largesse is needed for people who are poor and vulnerable and less for the middle- and upper-income groups.

NETWORK advocates for low-income working families by supporting all entitlement programs, such as SNAP, TANF, Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP (Child Health Insurance Program); discretionary programs including the WIC program (Women, Infants and Children), housing, child care for low-income workers, and greater income equality starting with raising the minimum wage to a “living wage.” We’ve already made clear in other places our position on wasteful military spending and the elimination of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funding.

These positions flow from our belief in economic equity, which requires valuing the worth and dignity of every person and ensuring that all people share the benefits of our economic activities, which is just another way of saying that we will always promote the common good. If we believe and support the latter then it follows logically that the budget we support must provide the essential needs of our communities, ensure the safe and healthy development of families and individuals, and support those who are most vulnerable due to unemployment, sickness, old age and poverty. We insist on a level playing field for all individuals, families and communities so that each may access resources allowing them to contribute their time, treasure and talent for the betterment of the common good.

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