In his radio address and press conferences last week, the president highlighted the Senate debate on a constitutional amendment — eventually defeated — to ban gay marriage. He didn't mention that the Congress is also geared up to repeal the estate tax — and hand a staggering trillion-dollar benefit to the richest of Americans.
Similarly the president has been touting the "success" of his economic plans — profits up, stocks up, CEO salaries up. He's not mentioned that the Conference of Mayors reports rising hunger and homelessness in our cities. Or that wages aren't keeping up with prices for most Americans.
We are headed into trouble. The administration, desperate to shore up its own base, is back to posturing on symbolic issues — a constitutional amendment on gay marriage, a constitutional amendment on burning the flag — and throwing money at the affluent that pay for the party. Meanwhile, the poor are simply ignored. The cities abandoned. Working people slighted.
President Bush's budget simply abandons the cities. He would cut spending on a range of programs that go to the poor, the elderly and the disabled — Medicaid, education, day care, home heating assistance, special food assistance. He says this is vital to bring down the deficits.
But at the same time, he insists on new tax cuts — largely for the very wealthy — that add more to the deficit than the cuts for the poor save. And he demands increases in military spending and homeland security spending — even while cutting the programs for the poor.
The estate tax repeal is particularly preposterous. With deficits already as far as the eye can see, the president wants to give the very wealthy a tax cut worth about $300 billion over five years. The tax break goes to the one family in 200 (the wealthiest 0.5 percent) that pays any estate tax at all.
The president and the Republican Congress seem to believe that America's problem is that the rich are too burdened and the poor have too much support. That America's military is weak, while its cities are strong.
The reality, of course, is the reverse. The rich have captured most of the gains of the last decades. From 1979 to 2003, the Congr-essional Budget Office shows that the income, after taxes, of the richest 1 percent of Americans more than doubled to over $700,000 per year. The income for middle Americans rose only by about $6,000 to $44,800 per year. And the income for the poorest 20 percent of Americans rose all of $600 over 24 years. CEO salaries are soaring; the wages of most Americans aren't keeping up.
The United States now spends nearly as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. We spend more on intelligence alone that any other country spends on its entire military. While our military is strong, our cities are in trouble. Cities across the country are facing rising hunger, rising homelessness and growing shortage of affordable housing, overcrowded schools, underpaid teachers, inadequate health care and an aged and declining infrastructure.
The Congressional Black Caucus has proposed an alternate budget. It shows that if we take back the tax cuts given to affluent Americans, we can make vital investments in education, in health care, in hunger and day care — and still balance the budget over time. We could double the education budget simply by eliminating unneeded Cold War weapons systems, and still maintain a military without any rival in the world.
The Rev. Martin Luther King taught us that budgets are moral documents. A nation that increases spending on war and reduces investment in education, a nation that rolls back taxes on the wealthy and cuts back help for the elderly, the disabled, the impoverished is a nation that has lost its way.
Cities — and urban poverty — have been off the agenda of both parties. The result is a deepening desperation and a deepening anger. Will America police the world while cutting support for police on its own streets? Will it build schools in Baghdad and not in Baltimore? These are fateful choices.
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel economist, now projects that the war in Iraq will cost over $1 trillion. Meanwhile, the Bush budget would cut funding for cops on the street, for child care, for health care for poor children. We're making profound choices in the dark, distracted by our fears, and forgetful of our values. We will pay a heavy price for this.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.