There is a lot of talk in American politics about how to protect the “middle class.” President Obama consistently draws the contrast between the wealthy and the middle class in order to rally support for his own policy positions. Republicans also invoke the middle class, if less successfully, accusing the President’s policies of targeting small businesses and their owners, America’s middle class job-creators.
What gets lost in all the rhetoric about the middle class is the need to protect a more vulnerable economic group, the poor. The middle class may vote more in greater numbers, and may be a more potent swing constituency that can sway the success of one party or the other, but it’s precisely because of those facts that the middle class don’t need the same level of protection as the poor. Politicians know that directly attacking programs that benefit the middle class, such as home mortgage interest deductions, Medicare, or Social Security, is bad move politically. The same cannot be said for programs that benefit the poor. For decades it has been good politics on both sides of the aisle to seek cuts in programs that benefit the poor: welfare, food stamps, aid to poor women with young children. The image of the welfare queen and myth of rampant fraud and abuse in public assistance programs has made it perfectly acceptable politics to seek cuts in programs for the poor.
The latest of these cuts is sure to be looming in the on-going debt ceiling debate. Christian groups concerned about the President and the Democratic Party’s lack of focus on the poor are already running ads asking, “What would Jesus cut?” Dr. Cornell West takes a more cynical stance. “We have a choice between a Reid plan, which is one of milk-toast spinelessness and we’ve got the Boehner plan, which is catastrophic mean spiritedness,” he said. “Poor people will lose based on both plans. Working people will lose based on both plans.”
Ezra Klein of the Washington Post tweeted today, “If politicians had to cut programs rather than just ‘discretionary spending,’ the politics of spending cuts would be very different.” I’m not sure that I agree. Though I think it would be harder to justify the “savings” if there were actual people one could point to who would be the losers in a debt ceiling compromise, as long as those people were poor, I’m sure politicians could call the cuts “waste and abuse” savings. In a time of such extreme economic hardship, I don’t think Congress is going to find trillions of dollars of “waste and abuse.” It’s not waste and abuse in federal programs that got us into the current budget situation. Instead, what the deal-makers are likely to find is plenty of room to cut “discretionary spending,” a euphemism for programs for the poor with large budgets because there are tens of millions of people who rely on them. Unfortunately because catering to poor people’s interests isn’t a political imperative for either party, those are the programs that are almost sure to see cuts.
Ideally, President Obama will recognize that the political reality of a divided Congress is no reason to throw the poor under the bus. Our first minority President should take a moral stand for those Americans least able to ensure that politicians in Washington are keeping their needs in mind. The Democrats in the House and Senate should only rally behind a plan that solves the current crisis with truly shared sacrifice, rather than austerity that falls hardest on those that can least afford it. If all it takes is a political crisis to cause Democrats to forget their progressive ideals and deal away programs so important to the lives of so many Americans, we can count on plenty more crises to come.