The Romney-Ryan Budget: Reward the Rich, Punish the Rest

This is Part 6 in a series. Find previous parts here.

With the election less than five days away, I’ve reached the final part in my series on the Romney-Ryan budget plan and its effects on women. I started this challenging project back in mid-July, before GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney had even chosen Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. But Romney had already enthusiastically embraced the 2013 House budget authored by Ryan. In previous pieces, I examined their proposals to:

* repeal Obamacare, revoking health care coverage from millions of low- and moderate-income people who just gained or were about to gain affordable access through this landmark reform;
* deny millions of young and low-income women access to birth control and other important health care services by completely defunding Title X family planning clinics, including (and especially) Planned Parenthood;
* convert Medicare to a privatized voucher system that would greatly benefit the insurance industry while forcing retirees to dig deeper into their own pockets;
* short-change the states by turning the federal government’s contribution to Medicaid funding into limited block grants, which would result in less health care coverage for low-income people — predominantly women and their children and nursing home residents; and
* shift Social Security onto a track that would undermine and eventually dismantle the entire system, forcing future retirees to work longer and handing their retirement savings over to the volatile private market.
Do you notice a theme running through these plans? They involve taking advantage of the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly and poor mothers and their children, for the benefit of the wealthiest. According to the New York Times:
More than three-fifths of the cuts proposed by Mr. Ryan . . . come from programs for low-income Americans. . . . These cuts are so severe that the nation’s Catholic bishops raised their voices in protest at the shredding of the nation’s moral obligations.

For decades now, right-wing leaders have demonized those in need. Their rhetoric has come into sharp focus during the 2012 presidential campaign. We’re told that those people don’t deserve a hand up, those people are just tax dodging, lazy freeloaders. Oh, and those slutty women should buy their own birth control. Well, those people are us.

For a long time, many voters and pundits thought Romney was a mild moderate. But behind closed doors he revealed his disdain for the 47 percent of Americans he thinks will never “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” It turns out that Romney is right at home in the new normal of the Republican Party, where the radical fringe has moved to center stage.

Conservative lawmakers attempt to explain their plundering of social programs by claiming to care about the people they’re hurting (that is, when they aren’t writing off these folks as moochers). The Romney-Ryan budget plan channels Ayn Rand’s ideology when it states : “[T]he paternalistic structures of these programs fail the very people they are intended to help,” and they must be slashed or scrapped so as not to “entrap able-bodied citizens into lives of complacency and dependency.” In other words, they want to make life miserable for the poor, for their own good.

If you’re not convinced that taking money away from needy people helps them magically pull themselves up by their bootstraps and find jobs, the Romney-Ryan budget has another reason for draining these federal programs: “[President Obama’s] policies place trust in an empowered federal government in place of families, local communities, and faith-based groups, sapping the latter of vitality and weakening communities in the process.” The budget goes on to suggest that “[c]entralized bureaucracy is no substitute for a vibrant civil society in which citizens help each other on a personal basis.”

Where exactly do Romney and Ryan live — in a complex country of 314 million people or Mayberry? The disaster wrought by Hurricane Sandy has exposed the lie to their logic. Of course the people of the United States reach out to help each other on an individual basis and through community-based organizations. Assistance from the government will never dampen the charitable nature of human beings. But make no mistake, the participation of the federal government is critical to keeping the people of this nation above water both figuratively and literally.

Which brings us to the last bit of hocus-pocus in the Romney-Ryan budget, and much like the other proposals, it’s not only cruel but incredibly short-sighted as well.

You see, Romney and Ryan plan to help the rich get richer by slashing federal funding to a whole range of social programs that, coincidentally or not, disproportionately serve and employ women.

Let’s start with Pell Grants, which help students with financial needs attend college. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) points out that the Pell Grant program already faces a sizeable funding gap, meaning that there is not enough money to provide for all those who are eligible, resulting in a “$58 billion shortfall through 2022.” While President Obama’s budget “modestly reduces the shortfall . . . the Ryan budget almost triples the size of the shortfall . . . even as it significantly cuts Pell benefits and eligibility.”

The Center for American Progress estimates that these cuts “would be devastating,” including:

* Eliminating Pell Grants for more than 1 million students
* Reducing remaining Pell Grants by more than1,500 per year
* Adding thousands of dollars in loan debt to low-income college students and their families.

Because the gender wage gap still exists, attending college is particularly important to women’s economic stability. But it is costly. A recent report from the American Association of University Women revealed: “In 2009, among full-time workers repaying their loans one year after college graduation, nearly half of women (47 percent) were paying more than 8 percent of their earnings toward student loan debt compared with 39 percent of men.” Should we expect women to bear larger student loans, thus setting them back even further from the start?

One of the largest and most critical targets in the Romney-Ryan budget is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps). The Romney-Ryan budget would convert SNAP to a block-grant program, “devolving” (Ryan’s term) it and other similar programs to the states. If the term “devolve” sounds less than constructive to you, I’m in firm agreement.

The budget narrative even goes so far as to assert that state governments can provide “a more robust safety net.” I’d love to see Romney and Ryan explain that one — how forcing the already financially strapped states to make do with less results in more “robust” programs.

The CBPP advises that the Romney-Ryan budget plan “includes cuts in SNAP of $133.5 billion — more than 17 percent — over the next ten years (2013-2022), which would necessitate ending assistance for millions of low-income families, cutting benefits for millions of such households, or some combination of the two.” These cuts “would almost certainly lead to increases in hunger and poverty.”

And who will be going hungry? Three-quarters of SNAP participants are working-age women and their children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition to mothers and children, seniors and people with disabilities would also be hard hit by this giant step backward in fighting poverty and hunger in the U.S.

The Romney-Ryan budget plan makes cuts to many other much-needed programs, and they manage to chip away at women’s livelihood at every turn. For example, cuts to federal job-training programs would mean less opportunities for women to seek out new, better-paying careers. And a single mom working at any job that helps pay the bills would face cuts to child care assistance and head start programs. Women working in fields like home health care or social work may find themselves out of a job thanks to the Romney-Ryan budget. Need housing or energy assistance? Also cut.

Under a Romney-Ryan administration, the federal government would shift much of its responsibility onto the states, knowing full well that the states would then have to make further sacrifices to stay afloat. CBPP spells it out:

“By 2021, the Ryan budget would reduce discretionary state and local grants to an estimated 0.6 percent of GDP, less than half the average of the last 35 years. . . . Cuts of such magnitude would force states and localities to reduce the quality and reach of their basic public systems — their schools, clean water facilities, and law enforcement activities, for example — or raise new revenue or cut other programs to continue meeting those needs.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that all of these reductions and devolutions taken together add up to disaster for low-income families as well as those barely hanging on in the middle class. And they add up to disaster for this nation. Forcing people further into poverty, denying them health care, food and a warm place to live — things other countries recognize as fundamental human rights — will not help the United States economy.

Running throughout the Romney-Ryan budget is a suspicion that by helping people you make them weaker, that the poor are easily swayed into behaving irresponsibly. The sad thing is, Romney and Ryan are the irresponsible ones — they demonstrate that perhaps it’s the moral fiber of the rich that’s compromised by an over-indulgent government. Tax breaks beget more clamor for further tax breaks — everyone else be damned.

In the first part of this series I introduced you to Linda and her daughter Emily. Linda worked hard all her life for rock-bottom wages, in jobs typically held by women. A single mom, she cared for her own aging parents while raising her daughter, Emily. She wanted better for Emily, but she didn’t make enough to maintain a college fund. A Pell Grant helped Emily get a Bachelor’s degree, but she still struggled to pay her student loans after graduation. Now Linda is retired and lives with Emily because her Social Security isn’t enough for her to live on her own. Medicare and Medicaid recently paid for Linda to have major surgery. One day, Medicaid will most likely pay for Linda to be cared for in a nursing facility.

Government programs are woven into these women’s lives, as they are for many of us. Pull on one or more of those threads, as the Romney-Ryan budget would do, and there’s no telling how far their lives could unravel.

Those of us who make up the 99 percent are a diverse crowd with wildly divergent experiences and opinions. But we are natural allies in the fight for a more equitable, hospitable and humane nation — one that doesn’t exist just to make big business and the wealthy even more rich and powerful. Together, we can reject the Romney-Ryan budget and send it to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 11/03/2012

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