ATLANTA -- Suddenly, congressional leaders have rediscovered fiscal restraint. After squandering a $2 trillion surplus and creating a tsunami of red ink, Republicans have come to see the benefits of simple arithmetic.
Oddly, their budget epiphany occurred only after they were asked to help the desperate victims of Hurricane Katrina. With Gulf Coast residents who have lost houses, jobs and even loved ones requesting assistance, the GOP wants to halt federal spending. They are threatening a bait-and-switch: They will provide assistance to Katrina's victims (much of it through handouts to business), but they will make up for it by cutting Medicare, food stamps and other programs designed to boost the most vulnerable Americans.
Congress didn't get fiscal religion when it passed a Medicare drug benefit that will cost $720 billion in its first 10 years, a massive boondoggle that will do far more for the pharmaceutical industry than it will for elderly patients. Lawmakers have barely batted an eye at the bill for the war in Iraq, running about $5 billion a month.
They didn't care about spending when they passed a pork-laden energy bill, which, among other things, gives the oil industry billions in tax breaks and subsidies. They didn't mind deficits when they passed an obnoxious transportation bill that includes $300 million for an Alaskan highway that goes nowhere.
But poor Americans are fair game. If you thought that the devastation this hurricane season might produce an outpouring of help for those who are barely getting by, think again. The "compassionate conservatism" on which President Bush campaigned is a sound bite, not a policy or a plan or even an inclination to help the have-nots.
It's funny how quickly the mood changed, with little in the way of complaint or protest. Just a little over a month ago, millions of Americans watched the footage of plaintive and terrified hurricane victims and responded with sympathy and generosity. But we've turned the page, switched the channel, moved on.
It's funny how we've reverted to a knee-jerk antipathy to the impoverished, even though much of our easy conventional wisdom simply isn't true. Decades of right-wing claptrap have convinced many Americans that the poor are lazy or stupid or undeserving and that government programs designed to help them only hurt. That just isn't so.
While the percentage of all Americans who live in poverty has hovered around 12 percent since 1970, the rate of black Americans in poverty has fallen sharply since then. According to the Census Bureau, 33 percent of black Americans lived in poverty in 1970; now, 24 percent do. To create the conditions that allowed impoverished children to become working adults, the nation provided basic health care, housing subsidies, job training or Pell Grants for college tuition. Those programs worked.
Note, too, that the sharpest drop in black poverty came about during the broad economic expansion of President Bill Clinton's tenure, which was sparked after he raised taxes on the wealthiest Americans. The rate of black poverty fell from 31 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2000.
While conservatives swear by lower taxes, which they claim produce widespread prosperity, the Bush cuts have contradicted that notion. While 11 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2000, about 12.7 percent did in 2004. Similarly, black poverty has risen 2 percentage points.
Yet conservatives haven't declared their tax cuts a failure. I haven't heard a single one of them denounce help for the affluent because helping them just makes the rest of us worse off. I've yet to hear GOP leaders say the oil companies - which are swimming in cash - don't deserve handouts.
If we're not going to tackle poverty again - if we're not going to see whether we can beat it back to, say, only 9 percent or 10 percent of Americans - so be it. But we ought to stop saying it's because trying to help the poor would only make them worse off. We ought to just come right out and tell the truth: We either lack the will to try or we simply don't care.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.