Save America’s Safety Net

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

National Urban League

It might seem peculiar now, as spring finally arrives in the Northeast, to be thinking of Charles Dickens' popular winter holiday tale, A Christmas Carol.

Nonetheless, I can't help but think of the scene at the end of Ebenezer Scrooge's visitation by the Ghost of Christmas Present when the latter pulls back his voluminous robe to reveal two wretched waifs, a boy and a girl, wrapped in rags, their bodies shrunken and hollowed-out by hunger, clinging to him for protection.

When Scrooge, about to begin his spiritual journey to redemption, pleads that something be done to save them, the Ghost sarcastically repeats words Scrooge himself had recently used to dismiss charities' appeals to his conscience.

"Are there no prisons?" the Ghost rhetorically asks in a booming voice. "Are there no workhouses?"

Well, modern-day America doesn't have workhouses. It has prisons, but in these financially tough times it's finally sunk in that the two-decade-long boom in prison construction has contributed to the economic morass now bedeviling state after state.

So, what is America's answer going to be to the growing number of Americans of all kinds now caught in a fierce downward economic spiral—out of work, and running out of unemployment benefits, with no job prospects in sight, and bills for house or apartment, car, children's medical care and schooling, and all the other necessities of life coming due?

There's a war going on—one that is being fought not on foreign soil, but here in the United States, and one that millions of Americans are losing.

The landscape of America's economic and social life is increasingly littered with the wreckage of this war.
The number of private-sector jobs lost in the past two years—2.6 million places gone from the workplace—is a modern record for so short a period.
The number of former jobholders who've now exhausted their unemployment benefits is at an all-time high.

The number of people unemployed six months or longer is at an all-time high, and no longer is it uncommon to read of, hear of—or know—people who've been unable to find a job for a year, or even two years.
Although exact figures are hard to come by, there's little doubt that in city after city, the number of homeless people is rising.

State governments, their treasuries battered by the downturn in the economy, are slashing funds for such basic social services as Medicare and Medicaid, and aid to elementary, secondary and higher education.

Millions of Americans have fallen through the now-porous safety net as the impact of the lack of a recovery driven by the creation of new jobs spreads into more areas of American life.

Faced with this growing crisis, the Bush Administration's economic response has been to insist that tax cuts, tax cuts, and more tax cuts for the wealthy are the medicine our ailing economy needs.

But tax cuts for the wealthy are not going to create jobs for middle-income and low-income people.

They're not going to refill the treasuries of the states—nearly all of them now—having to make Hobbesian choices between cutting social programs that affect the elderly more or those that affect young children more; between cutting state aid for pre-kindergarten through secondary education or raising tuitions to state colleges and universities, and thus forcing growing numbers of young adults to delay pursuing higher learning; between … well, you get the picture.

Last month the prestigious Committee for Economic Development, a nonprofit, nonpartisan council of more than 200 business leaders and university presidents, urged the Bush Administration to forego its obsession with tax cuts and instead "wage war on many fronts" against America's deteriorating fiscal situation by adopting a comprehensive plan that includes restructuring the Social Security system and Medicare, restraining spending for defense and security matters, and expanding investment in education, research and infrastructure development.
The CED also declared the federal government must help fund states' efforts to meet the federally mandated objectives of the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind act because "education reform is too important to be allowed to fail."

And it urges political leaders to "use this opportunity to explore alternative or additional sources of revenue through taxation systems that support our growth objectives, and energy needs."
Thus, from high and low levels, the bells of American society are tolling out dramatic warnings of the severity of the economic threat stalking America's present and its future.

The cuts to social services states and cities are now facing, and the ones they have already made, are on the verge of producing the kind of grim destitution Dickens portrayed in A Christmas Carol and other novels.
We Americans must resist. What it takes is the political will to find the creative legislative solutions that keep America's safety net—and its commitment to compassion for the common good—whole.

Or else, we will have to find the words to use in these times for writing off our fellow citizens in need.

What, I wonder, will be the modern-day equivalent of "Are there no prisons, are their no workhouses?"

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