Commentary
12:46 pm
Thu April 14, 2011

Soaking the Poor

President Obama came under fire yesterday for proposing that the richest Americans pay a higher proportion of the tax burden, especially with deficits soaring out of control.

Republicans, some of whom are running for president, said this would hurt the economy‘s ability to create jobs.

They said this was just one more wrong-headed left-wing proposal to solve economic problems by “soaking the rich.”

Well, that’s a battle that will be fought out on the national stage, likely throughout next year’s presidential campaign and beyond.

But here in Michigan, it can’t be denied that the legislature is taking a different approach. To a large extent, the Republican majorities seem inclined to balance the books by soaking the poor.

Yesterday, for example, a subcommittee in the House took this action on the state Department of Human Services budget. They slashed almost ten million dollars from the clothing allowance for children on welfare whose family groups do not include an adult. In other words, kids who in a simpler time were referred to as orphans.

Well, what do poor kids need clothes for anyway?  State Representative Dave Agema, the subcommittee chair, said “I think the hardship is negligible,” and suggested the money was often not spent on clothes anyway. Budget decisions are all about spending priorities, and Representative Agema, a Republican from Grandville,  has priorities of his own. He missed the battle to balance the state budget in 2007, because he decided to go hunt wild sheep in Siberia.

Naturally, he stayed on the state payroll. Life is about making tough decisions, and yesterday, his committee didn’t stop at cutting the clothing allowance for poor kids. They also severely cut funds for disabled people who are struggling valiantly to live independently.

The legislators voted to cut the stipend they get from $269 dollars a month to $175 dollars. Even Mr. Agema blinked at that, saying “This is a tough one, no question about it.“ But he justified that by noting that Indiana doesn’t offer such a program at all.

Cuts like these, coupled with the governor’s assistance on ending the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, are bound to have socially devastating consequences.  Some of the harshest criticisms of these moves have been coming not from the Democrats, but from a group whose votes Republicans have been increasingly counting on in recent years:

Roman Catholics. Yesterday, the Michigan Catholic Conference blasted both the governor and the legislators over the budget changes I just mentioned. They said these moves were, quote “unacceptable, and would only create greater hardships for the poor and disadvantaged children and disabled persons across the state.“

Incidentally, the same committee added some cuts that even the governor hadn’t proposed, eliminating millions for employment and training support services, family preservation programs and early childhood investment. Well, the budget has to be balanced.

What isn’t clear is what the lawmakers think these poor people ought to do to survive. It is hard to tighten your belt if you don’t have one. What is clear is that the ranks of the poor have been growing, and steps like these are guaranteed to make their lives harder.

And I don’t see how that can be good for Michigan.