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Poor People Will Lose In The Fight Over The Debt Ceiling

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It is a universal truth in the United States that if politicians have a choice between harming the poor or harming the big banks, the poor will always lose. This is as true under Biden as it was under Trump. 

The debate on the debt ceiling in DC is purposefully hazy, but it really boils down to one simple question: how can we spend less money on poor people? 

When banks fail, Democrats and Republicans always join hands to bail them out. But when poor people struggle to make rent, to make their car payments, to find childcare, they both lament that “tough choices” will need to be made.

Right now, Biden is preparing to make some tough choices in order to resolve the standoff over the debt ceiling. Tough choices that will amount to barbaric attacks on the most vulnerable members of our society. He’ll lay blame on the Republicans, and surely they are salivating over the idea of attacking the poor, but this is and always has been a bipartisan initiative.

What Does the Government Spend Money On?

The US is in such profound debt not because it provides robust services to working people, but because it hemorrhages our tax money on weapons and refuses to collect on the piles of wealth held by the super rich.

The US spends more on “defense” than China, Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Germany, France, South Korea, Japan, and Ukraine combined. Nearly half of that goes to defense contractors, major corporations that make their billions off killing.

The combined salaries of the top defense contractor executives could send 17,655 students to college. Just one quarter of Lockheed Martin’s yearly contract with the government could end homelessness in the US. The amount the US spent on weapons alone so far in 2023 could pay for free public college for all, triple current spending on cash assistance for poor families, and there’d still be enough left over to buy every single kid in the US two brand new iPhones. 

Working People Foot The Bill

The Republicans are demanding that in exchange for agreeing to lift the debt ceiling, the legislative limit on the amount of debt the US Treasury can take on, the Democrats have to agree to massive spending cuts. The catch, however, is that the cuts can’t be made to defense spending, Social Security or Medicare, or veteran’s health care.

This means that if the Republican plan were to be adopted, 1.2 million poor Americans with young children would lose food assistance, 80,000 students would lose Pell grants, two million families would lose access to care at community health centers, 200,000 fewer children would have access to Head Start programs, and this is just the beginning. The agenda of the Republican Party amounts to a declaration of war on poor families in the US, stripping them of what dismal social services they currently have.

DC politicians make up an elite class of salesmen who do little more than compete to more convincingly package their big-business agenda as somehow pro-worker. 

The Republicans, particularly the right populists who’ve risen to fame in the wake of Trump’s election, posture as defenders of the little guys, but this falls flat on its face when you look at their plans to gut social spending. 

The Democrats, on the other hand, are perhaps even better at selling this lie. Biden was described as the “most progressive president since FDR,” but just this March was responsible for handing over more than $250 billion to failed banks, making this the second big bank bailout of his political career. He’s also signaled a willingness to compromise with Republicans on vicious spending cuts.

The Social Safety Net We Need

The list of things the government doesn’t provide us with is just as bleak as the list of what it does. We don’t have universal public healthcare, we don’t have paid family leave, we don’t have free public college, and we don’t have universal pre-K. 

What the government does provide is desperately below what’s needed and demands that poor people jump through hoops to gain access. Unemployment and disability benefits are gutter-level, with only $15,100 in average yearly benefits for a disabled adult. The free school lunch program is so bare-bones that it excludes millions of desperate families for the crime of living just a hair above the poverty line.

With all the lies coming from DC about overspending, it can be hard to imagine a world in which the government provides for even our basic needs. But during COVID, we got a glimpse into what they are capable of providing. 

For a brief moment at the beginning of this decade, child poverty was cut in half. COVID-era policies saw more money going into the hands of ordinary people than what we have ever been told was possible. But it was all temporary. Under Biden’s watch, the entire emergency social safety net has been torn down, leaving us worse off than before.

Working people keep society running, and we need to fight – at minimum – for a transformative set of safety net policies. 

We need:

  • Medicare for All
  • Universal childcare
  • Paid family leave
  • High-quality, permanently affordable housing
  • Livable unemployment benefits
  • Free public college and cancelation of student debt
  • Fully funded community centers with free after-school resources
  • A public works program to rehabilitate crumbling infrastructure

Winning this type of progressive change will require a mass, working class fightback that is highly organized and prepared to go head to head with the political elite in both parties. It would take a knock-out-drag-out war, and they would need to genuinely fear the overthrow of their system in order to grant this level of change.

And at core, they’re right. A society where the needs of all working people are permanently met is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism. Writing working people’s rights into the DNA of our society will require a revolutionary struggle against capitalism and for a socialist world.

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