No one's paying attention as social fabric rips

January 18, 2002|By Molly Ivins

AUSTIN, Texas - In New York City last year, about 3,000 people died in the attack on the World Trade Center.

In New York City last year, 30,000 people came to the new federal limits on welfare. Another 19,000 will lose assistance this year.

New York has lost 95,000 jobs since Sept. 11. It lost 75,000 jobs in the year before that.

There are now 30,000 people in the city shelters.

Now find the numbers for your town. In Austin, the only organization that provides help to women with breast cancer and no health insurance has just cut its staff from 30 to six, with an equal impact on the help that can be offered. Homelessness is up, shelter populations are up, food distribution centers and soup kitchens are overwhelmed.

And all this is happening in a cruel synergy of inattention, indifference and the final fraying of the social safety net.

Charities are overwhelmed and suddenly vastly underfunded, in large part as a consequence of the complete focus on the victims of Sept. 11.

The federal government, largely under Republican control, is dealing with war, terrorism and recession. State governments, with far less attention, are out of money, running into deficits and cutting services across the board. Texas, with another year to go before the biannual budget battle, is declaring it can no longer afford its small share of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

At the beginning of the 1990s, the states raised their taxes, and toward the end of the '90s, they cut their taxes. But the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports they didn't cut the same taxes they had raised.

"Increases in regressive taxes - that is, taxes like the sales tax, which bear most heavily on lower- and moderate-income families - by and large were never reversed. Instead, states cut taxes that bear most heavily on upper-income families," reported Paul Krugman. "The end result was a redistribution of the tax burden away from the haves toward the have-nots. A family earning, say, $30,000 per year pays considerably more in states taxes than a family the same constant-dollar income did in 1990, while a family earning $600,000 per year pays considerably less."

But attention is not being paid. The media, with their One Big Story obsession, just got off the war in Afghanistan long enough to start reporting Enron. Networks still devote daily remembrance to the traumas of Sept. 11, effectively obliterating other needs.

And there is something else happening as well. Thirty-eight percent of April's tax cut went to benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of taxpayers. We are at a curious point in our political debate where anyone who points that out is accused of "fomenting class warfare."

Actually, reporting that the wealthiest 1 percent got 38 percent of the benefits is not fomenting class warfare - passing a tax cut that gives 38 percent to the wealthiest 1 percent is fomenting class warfare. Likewise, proposing an "economic stimulus package" of which 92 percent of the benefits are tax cuts for huge corporations is fomenting class warfare.

And this is a country that needs to be a little nervous about class warfare as economic pain bites. There have been some stories pointing out that this recession is an oddity in that, unlike a normal recession, it is hitting all classes - largely because of the dot.com bust. Bright college graduates lose jobs and have to move back in with Mom and Dad. But that's not the same as the working poor losing their jobs, is it?

Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, is in fiscal crisis. According to The New York Times, overall Medicaid spending went up by 11 percent last year, just as the states faced huge deficits.

We live in a society in which the bad stuff flows downhill, and the people on the bottom are drowning in it. This is not a story to which the corporate media pay attention. Bad demographics don't attract advertisers - not upbeat, no patriotism, too busy with Russell Crowe's love life.

As anyone who is involved in raising money for a nonprofit organization these days knows, the flying bombs that hit on Sept. 11 also landed on every helping organization in America with a huge impact. Budgets, staff, services, facilities - all slashed. And at the top, those with the power, those who make the decisions, are too far away to even see what is happening in the streets, insulated by multiplying multiples of their incomes.

After six years as governor of Texas, George W. Bush was infuriated by a federal report ranking Texas No. 1 in hunger. "You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas," he said. Well, Texas had been No. 1 in hunger since the feds started keeping count in the 1960s - it's a permanent condition here, but the governor had never seen it.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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