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Budget cuts take aim at middle class

February 19, 2007

By: John Lewis

May 10, 2005 - The Republican leadership of both houses of the U.S. Congress recently crafted an agreement to pass a 2006 federal budget. These negotiations took place largely in secret without Democratic input, silencing the voices of millions of American voters.

Democratic members of the House were given less than six hours to review this complex, voluminous document before we were forced to vote on economic matters that will drastically affect millions of Americans.

The House and Senate leadership took their cues from the White House, implementing many of the budget cuts President Bush proposed this year. Many of the programs slated for drastic funding reductions have helped create and sustain a middle-class lifestyle for millions of American families in the last half-century.

Conservative Republicans want to do away with that middle-class support system because they believe it costs too much. They believe corporate America and the rich have to pay in too much of their profit to support programs that have benefited so many citizens --- student loan programs, teacher enrichment programs, gifted and talented programs, Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, just to name a few.

In the name of "individual responsibility" and "shrinking big government" they are reshaping the lives of millions of middle-class Americans, not just the poor. Most of us do not even realize it is happening.

The Republican leadership in Congress and in the White House is using its unilateral dominance of two branches of our government --- the legislative and executive --- to ram through drastic changes to the American way of life. (The hotly debated "nuclear option" proposal to disable filibusters on judicial nominees is an attempt to directly influence the last check on their dominance --- the judiciary.)

The public has recently been focused on Social Security, which will not evidence a problem until 2041, as Vice President Dick Cheney admitted on his visit to Smyrna recently. Meanwhile, Medicaid --- health insurance for people with disabilities, the elderly and defenseless children --- is being gutted wholesale while we are not looking.

One way the road is paved for these program cuts is the use of national figures to construct some reasoning, sometimes any reasoning, regardless of its merit, to justify these changes. One recent example is an Atlanta Journal-Constitution opinion piece in which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich advocated dismantling Medicaid, just days before Congress passed its budget including $10 billion in Medicaid cuts ("Revamp Medicaid to help minorities fare better," @issue, April 7).

Gingrich drew an erroneous, offensive and unsubstantiated link between widely acknowledged racial disparities in the health care system and the alleged failures of Medicaid. Without offering any scientific documentation, he singled out African-Americans, blaming the reason they receive inferior medical care on their disproportionate reliance on the Medicaid system.

Actually, researchers at Harvard University's School of Public Health as well as the Institute of Medicine have scientifically studied racial disparities in health care. Both institutions found that regardless of the kind of health insurance minority patients use --- private insurance, employer-based coverage or Medicaid --- they receive inferior medical service across the board.

One principal reason Medicaid was developed, in fact, is to help close the gap by offering insurance coverage to people who could never afford it otherwise. Some of those people are African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, but the largest single group covered by Medicaid is white Americans. According to the Urban Institute and the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid, white citizens represent 47 percent of those receiving Medicaid.

Medicaid is not a perfect system. There is ample room for improvement. But gutting the program as Gingrich and Bush proposed and the U.S. Congress wrote into law will widen the disparities and achieve only short-term savings on the backs of some of the sickest, poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.

As a nation, we must understand that these proposals --- privatization of Social Security, defunding Medicaid and Medicare, raising taxes on the middle class while lifting the tax burden of the rich --- are not simply policy adjustments. They strike at the very meaning of American democracy.

What kind of an America do we want to be? Do we want to become a government that offers benefits and breaks for the rich but does not use its collective power to support working families? Yes, we value fiscal responsibility, individual responsibility and efficient spending, but does that have to lead to an America that leaves children, the elderly and the sick to fend for themselves? I think not.

As Americans, we value our integrity as a nation and our commitment to democracy more than that. We believe there is a point of compromise where economy meets justice, where careful spending enables fairness.

I believe the American people would be better served if members of Congress, especially the majority, worked toward that kind of compromise instead of ramming through policies that do not fairly represent all the people of America.