The blizzard of budget numbers flurrying around Washington is disorienting. Republicans are talking about cuts in the next seven months. The president’s budget proposes cuts in FY 2012 that begins in October. But both paint the same picture: deficits are high, cuts must be made, and sacrifice is in order. The president would invest in areas vital to our future but make difficult cuts in programs he cares about. The Republicans would just cut. Both assume a recovery that most Americans have yet to see.
But that shared picture is as distorted as a fun house mirror. In fact, what we’re witnessing is far tawdrier. In December, Washington agreed on indulgence for the rich — a continuation of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% for two years, costing about $40 billion a year. Now in February, we get austerity for working and poor people. At a time of Gilded Age inequality, with the top 1% capturing nearly one-fourth of all income, Washington has decided to offer more benefits to the rich, and cut basic programs for working families.
Consider the proposed Republican resolution for cuts in education over the next seven months, slated at a little over $10 billion or 15%. This is equivalent to one-fourth of the tax breaks just handed to the richest Americans for a year.
What would be lost in the education cuts? Elementary and Secondary Schools would lose a little over $2 billion, costing an estimated 26,000 jobs. About 957,000 students from poor families would see federal support for their schools drop by nearly $700 million, costing about 9,000 jobs, many of them teachers. (The figures here from a working document “US Department of Education: Impact of House Full Year Continuing Resolution for FY 2011” compiled by the National Education Association.)
The federal commitment to support special education costs would be revoked. Special Ed funds would be slashed by nearly $600 million, affecting 324,000 children with special needs. Few states will be able to replace that money.
College students struggle to meet rising tuitions across the country. Republicans propose to cut Pell Grants, the scholarship support for low income students, by $5.7 billion (or about 1/8 of the tax breaks provided to the richest Americans). This would reduce or eliminate financial aid for approximate 1.5 million low income students, and slice $845 off the current maximum award. Similarly, funding for Federal Supplemental Opportunity grants would be terminated, saving $757 million, and eliminating this assistance for over a million college students. The cuts will surely force thousands of students to drop out.
Every study shows the extraordinary returns from pre-K programs for students. Children who go to pre-kindergarten programs are better prepared for school, and are less likely to drop out. But the Republican resolution would cut Head Start by over $1 billion from current levels (or one-fortieth of the tax break given the wealthiest Americans). That would eliminate about 128,000 slots for low-income children, and would likely lead to 14,000 job losses, many of them preschool teachers.
It isn’t only the well off who end well off. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates testified that the Defense Department can’t do its job without an annual core appropriation of $540 billion (not counting the $100 billion plus spent on Iraq and Afghanistan), or an increase of $14 billion from the current level. We’re spending about as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. Republicans will add more to military spending than they propose to cut from education programs that go mostly to kids in need. We haven’t seen the Republican plans for next year, but Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican Chair of the Budget Committee, has pledged that the domestic cuts will get worse, while the core military continues to rise.
America now suffers more extreme inequality than Egypt or Tunisia. In all the debates about our economy, the one consensus is that we must do a better job educating our children. Cutting back preschool, aid to low income schools, special education programs and college assistance doesn’t make much sense. It’s not about deficit reduction. Republicans would add greater sums than those cuts to the military budget and spend more on tax breaks to the richest few. We may need our own Tahrir Square citizens’ uprising to turn this around.