A World Turned Upside Down

By: Milton J. Little, Jr.
Interim President and CEO

National Urban League

In the "old days,"from the early 1930s to, say, the mid-1990s, it was accepted that part of government's duty was to be compassionate toward and protect those Americans who were the poorest and neediest among us.
Who among us will say now that government in America intends to maintain that obligation?

Instead, more and more, we see the transformation of government from protector of the working and middle classes to their scourge, as some seek to reserve all the "compassion" in the society for the wealthiest of Americans, who, it is glibly asserted, are being "victimized" by an unjust tax structure.

That change of heart is apparent in the draconian budget cuts in social services rolling like a tidal wave through state legislatures and, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put it, "eroding the nation's basic defenses against ignorance, disease and destitution."

Perhaps the most dismaying example of this change, however, is the Internal Revenue Service's new proposal to target for intensive investigation those poor American workers who claim the earned-income tax credit. The tax credit works in part by refunding taxes the workers have already paid, thus supplementing their incomes. The average payment per claim is $1,976.00.

During the past quarter-century this program, limited to families with total earnings less than $35,000, has helped millions stave off poverty and given them an incentive to continue to work and be productive members of society.

Now, the Bush Administration, arguing the program is bogged down with error and fraud that loses the government as much as $10-billion a year, has proposed onerous new rules that are certain to reduce the number of poor workers who will both apply for and receive the tax credit.
We're all for minimizing waste in government programs. But this action doesn't make sense—especially given the far, far larger tax amounts the I.R.S. has shown comparatively little interest in attempting to collect from individual taxpayers, offshore accounts, and corporations.

There's nothing "compassionate" or "conservative" about such an approach. It's even more startling now precisely because those at the bottom of the economic ladder need all they help they can get—for their sakes, and the economy's as a whole.

Officially, we're not in a recession. Technically, the American economy is growing, albeit weakly.

But if you look at, not the "virtual reality" of those technical measurements of the economy, but the real world in which most Americans live, you can only view the situation with growing alarm.

Unemployment grew last month to 6 percent overall, from 5.8 percent in March, as 48,000 jobs were lost.

True, that that 6-percent figure may be somewhat of an overstatement because it includes the 220,000 military reservists the Bush

Administration called up for war duty.

Nonetheless, the data defining the nation's jobs and general economic situation continue to be grim.

In the last two years, more than 2.6 million jobs have disappeared—525,000 of them in the last three months alone. Now nearly 9 million Americans are out of work, and nearly 2 million have been without work for 6 months and more. More than 4 million former jobholders have stopped looking for work altogether, and thus aren't officially counted in the employment/unemployment calculations.

The number of temporary employees fell in April by 14,000 to 2.8 million, a decline of 20 percent since 2000; and the number of part-time workers who are part-time only because they can't find full-time jobs stands at 4.8 million, a 50-percent increase since 2000 and a 10-year high.

The average length of unemployment among those jobless still looking for work has grown to more than 19 weeks, the longest since 1984.
The extension of unemployment benefits enacted by Congress and signed by President Bush in January—giving 13 weeks of additional benefits to the jobless who had passed the standard 26-week period without finding a job—will end later this month if Congress doesn't renew it. That would add more than a million jobless to the more than one million who've already lost even their extended state and federal unemployment benefits.

There's a seeming paradox in citing all these numbers. They sketch the magnitude of the economic difficulty choking the nation. They tell us that this isn't a matter of individuals who "don't want to work."

But they also tend to obscure the wrenching plight of individuals—those elderly or ill or disabled now being cut off of Medicaid, those children left in the lurch by cuts in school aid, those able-bodied jobless workers who've spent months and years now in a fruitless search for work.

These are people, our fellow Americans, who've seen their world turned upside down.

What are they to do?

Let me put that another way: What are we to do?

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