The Lame Direction of the Lame Duck

Nearly 2 million U.S. workers are facing premature elimination of federally-funded unemployment benefits if Congress doesn’t act by November 30. Yet the talk dominating Washington, D.C. these days is about extending George Bush’s tax giveaway to the rich. Really?

It’s not difficult to figure out why Washington pays attention to the needs of special interests and the wealthy while ignoring the needs of ordinary Americans. Washington is not a mere reflection of the larger inequalities in our society; it’s an amplification of that inequality.

Start with the recently released study about who is in Congress: rich people. Of the 535 members of Congress, nearly half of them – 261 – are millionaires. And of these congressional millionaires, 55 had an average calculated wealth of $10 million or more in 2009, with eight in the $100 million-plus range.

And who influences D.C.? Consider that since 2008, the insurance lobby has spent $1 billion dollars trying to make sure profits keep getting priority over people in our health care system (Health Care Profiteers: A Billion-Dollar Lobby.) And that’s just health care. If we add in the hundreds of millions spent by Wall Street trying to avoid regulation, keep their tax loppholes and get big bailouts, and the big oil interests who succeeded in blocking green energy jobs the numbers are staggering.

The resulting disregard for the well being of working Americans, reflected in the imminent lapse of unemployment benefits, is at the root of America’s economic predicament. For the past 30 years, most of the benefits of economic growth have been held by a small group at the top of the ladder.

The solutions of the past can’t be our roadmap out of this economic crisis. Our economy will not grow strong with millions of people economically insecure and living on the edge. Continuing unemployment benefits isn’t luxury spending, this is necessary spending we must make not only keeps millions of Americans from despair, but place priority on the values of mutual security, equity and interdependence and injects crucial money into a sputtering economy.

On the other hand, extending tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans would do little to benefit most workers and would do a lot to increase the deficit. An extension of the Bush era tax cuts for the top 2 percent of income earners would cost $700 billion over the next 10 years, or 1 trillion when you add interest. That fact alone should be enough to end the squabbling. But this fight really isn’t about working Americans versus millionaires. It’s about a clash in ideology as to who is most deserving of receiving support in order to rescue our economy. The numbers undoubtedly favor workers.

Never in the history of the UI program has Congress cut back on federally-funded benefits when unemployment was over 7.2 percent. Unemployment now stands at 9.6 percent and at a staggering 16.1 percent in African American communities. In a new national survey on unemployment benefits by the National Employment Law Project and Half in Ten, 67 percent of all voters believe Congress should continue to provide unemployment benefits until unemployment comes down substantially.

The fight over tax cuts and UI benefits waging in Congress is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a harbinger of a much larger crisis of inequality.

The latest hunger report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows hunger remains at its highest levels in 15 years with 17.4 million households reporting having difficulty feeding their family due to lack of resources. Perhaps the most staggering indictment of the old economic paradigm: From 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.

Political leaders that justify tax breaks for millionaires and cuts to programs benefiting middle America are rooted in an old way of thinking. It’s this way of thinking that got us where we are now. It’s time we turn the old ways on their head and invest wisely in the real needs of people – education, health, a secure income and the benefits they need just to keep their heads above water in this Great Recession.

We have a chance to create a new equitable economy that will foster a more prosperous renewal of America. But that will only happen if we stand up for the values of mutual security, equity, and interdependence.

Work with us to create this new economy by texting CHANGE to 69866.


This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

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