There's Always Money For War
by Jared Bernstein
TomPaine.com, March 14, 2007
Why is it that our representatives can
easily raise endless amounts of money for war, but can't adequately
fund human needs?
Okay, this is going to sound really naïve.
It's the kind of question you'd expect from an earnest, if not
slightly annoying, 12-year-old, not from a hard-boiled wonk like
yours truly. But why is it that our representatives can easily
raise endless amounts of money for war, but can't adequately fund
Exhibit #1: The Washington Post recently
ran an important article documenting the loss of child-care subsidies
to low-income, working parents. One of the lessons from welfare
reform is that such work supports are a critical component of
a pro-work, anti-poverty agenda. But because the program is terribly
underfunded -- fewer than a fifth of eligible people receive help
-- there's a huge waiting list, and families are left to give
up on work or patch together less-than-desirable child-care situations.
Exhibit #2: If the president gets his
way on budget requests over the next few years, and he always
has, the Congressional Budget Office tells us that spending on
the Iraq war will soon top $500 billion -- $746 billion if you
throw in Afghanistan. According to OMBWatch, the Congress will
soon begin evaluating the largest supplemental funding bill ever
requested by an administration: just shy of $100 billion, mostly
for the war on terror and its sundry components.
Exhibit #3: We currently spend about $5
billion a year at the federal level on the block grant that funds
child care. Last year, we added a $1 billion increase over five
years. A bill to dedicate $6 billion more died in the Senate.
Because these values are not adjusted for either inflation or
population growth, the demand for child-care slots is outpacing
capacity. According to the Bush administration's own budget, if
we fail to devote more resources to child care, by 2010, the families
of 300,000 fewer children will get the help they need.
Exhibit #4: I recently testified before
the Senate Finance Committee on the question of whether there
needed to be $8 billion worth of tax cuts to businesses to offset
the impact of the federal minimum wage increase. I argued that
the cuts were unnecessary, but in this context, consider this
point: Because tax cuts must now be paid for, the committee was
able to come up with $8 billion of offsets to pay for these cuts.
In other words, when they want to, Congress
can allocate or raise money. The problem, as put by my colleague
Lawrence Mishel, is "... the direct consequence of maintaining
other priorities. Some [policy makers] are wedded to maintaining
the recent tax cuts. Many more believe we have to spend whatever
it takes for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ... [o]thers believe
that moving toward a balanced budget is essential. Whatever one
thinks of these positions it is clear that the result is that
human capital investments get the leftover fiscal scraps."
For those of us unhappy with this state
of affairs, who believe that these are the wrong priorities, the
big -- giant, really -- question is what has to change?
The answer, I think, comes from a meeting
of top-down and bottom-up. Today's priorities are the result of
politicians' perceptions that their constituents, at least the
ones they care about, want government to wage war and cut taxes,
not to provide child and health care. Thus, the first step in
turning this around is to tap and nurture demand among the electorate
for the best solutions to the problems we face. I've stressed
child care for low-income workers because it's so important to
their ability to escape poverty, but think of national health
care in this light, along with retirement security and the inequalities
associated with globalization.
Progressive policy advocates need to shape
and promote an agenda that reaches people on these issues and
is at the scale of the challenges they face. If such an agenda
is articulated by a 2008 candidate, it may well start to resonate
and reverberate in precisely the way that's needed to reshape
the priorities of those who hold the purse strings. Then I can
go back to being a hard-boiled wonk instead of a naïve ingénue
who wants to trade guns for butter.
Jared Bernstein is senior economist with
the Economic Policy Institute and author of All Together Now:
Common Sense for a Fair Economy.