Friday, August 19, 2011

The Kids Count

By William Fisher

“If the top earners are OK, then the rest of us will be OK.”

That piece of economic sleight-of-hand has been a central tenet in the Republican catechism since even before Ronald Reagan and long before the Tea Party.

The Grand Old Party clings to this totally discredited and never-proven economic article-of-faith despite a mountain of evidence that grows higher with each passing week in recession.

The figures that tell most of this sorry story are these, reported in the Huffington Post:

The income gap between the richest and poorest Americans grew last year to its largest margin ever, a stark divide as Democrats and Republicans spar over whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.

The top-earning 20 percent of Americans – those making more than $100,000 each year –received 49.4 percent of all income generated in the U.S., compared with the 3.4 percent made by the bottom 20 percent of earners, those who fell below the poverty line, according to the new figures. That ratio of 14.5-to-1 was an increase from 13.6in 2008 and nearly double a low of 7.69 in 1968.

At the top, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans, who earn more than $180,000, added slightly to their annual incomes last year, the data show. Families at the $50,000 median level slipped lower.

But there’s another part of the story that’s not usually told. It’s how American children are being affected by the Great Recession.

One of the few looks into this largely hidden part of the issue was taken by Sixty Minutes on CBS television a few weeks ago. The show revealed a large cohort of school kids who have been forced to live in motels because their parents lost their jobs and then their homes through foreclosure.

These kids run over to their school to brush their teeth and wash up in the morning. They run out to the nearest fast-food joints, with their parents, at mealtimes. In the mornings, a special school bus picks them up near their motels. The bus is dedicated to that task. And many families who aren’t living in motels, or camping out with friends or relatives, are living in municipal shelters. One father, out of work for more than a year, has taken to sitting on the curb of a busy thoroughfare with an upside-down cap and displaying a sign that reads,” Will Work for Food – Family of Three.”

Now the Annie E. Casey Foundation gives us a set of hard and very grim data to support Sixty Minutes’ anecdotal view. That data is very scary, very angry-making and very heart-breaking. The new numbers on 2009 poverty among U.S. children finds 31 million children living in families that are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Now, in 2010, they are higher still.

On the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff discussed the new statistics with Patrick McCarthy, CEO of the Casey Foundation, which has spent years compiling this kind of data about kids.

The Foundation’s new report – The Kids’ Count -- tells us that poverty rates among children rose substantially, not just during the recession, but throughout the last decade. The official child poverty rate rose by nearly 20 percent from 2000 to 2009. And, in 2010, 11 percent of children lived with at least one unemployed parent.

That means that 20 percent of all American children are living in poverty. Twenty percent is 31 million kids. Think about it!

The Foundation says that it’s even more troubling in some ways is that the children who are on the edge of living in poverty, those children who live with families that are at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, we now have 42 percent of all children, 31 million children in the U.S., living at that level.

Patrick McCarthy describes these 31 million children living below -- at or below $43,500 a year – as surviving “two or three paychecks away from economic catastrophe.”

McCarthy understates the figures as “stunning” -- “especially when you consider what the research tells us what happens when children grow up in poverty or when they slip into poverty as a result of recession.”

He says: “We know that kids who grow up poor are much more likely to end up being poor themselves. They're more likely to have children too early with teen pregnancy. They're more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system as they grow up. They're less likely to be employed. And they're less likely to fully use the talents that they're given.”

McCarthy’s foundation looked at all the past recent recessions. It compared children who slipped into poverty as a result of one of those recessions, with a child who was at the same level of income before the recession. Those kids who fell into poverty in fact were less likely to graduate from school, more likely to have school problems, more likely to have educational difficulty.

And even health was affected over the long term as those kids were followed into adulthood.

McCarthy called attention to the effects of the housing crisis, of so many foreclosures, on children. Well, this is also a story that is not often told.

Between 2007 and 2009, 5.3 million children were directly affected by the
foreclosure crisis, having to leave their homes. We're talking about four percent of the children in this country being affected by a foreclosure crisis.

McCarthy says “there's another hidden fact here, though, and that is that the children who live in a rental housing, when the owner of that property goes through foreclosure, too often, that rental -- that family renting in that property is forced to move.”

And we know a lot of about what happens to children when they have to move frequently. Again, their schoolwork suffers. They often have to change schools, which puts them behind. They're less likely to graduate from school. They're more likely to have behavioral problems. There's a whole list of problems that come about as a result of a foreclosure crisis.

McCarthy proposes a two-generation strategy for dealing with these monumental problems.

Short-term, unemployment insurance is a key protector of kids and families
when unemployment is as high as it is. The earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, these kinds of things help to supplement wages and keep kids out of poverty.

“The two-generation strategy means focusing on the parents, but also then
investing early in children. We know from research that high-quality prenatal care, high-quality child care and pre-K, and especially education in the early years is critical to put children on a path towards opportunity.”

“We believe that what you need to focus on is what's most important, so every dollar is used in the best way, what's most cost-effective, and what can you do now, in 2011, that's going to shape what this country looks like in 2031, in 2041, and in 2051,” he says.

Acknowledging that these strategies cost money to implement, Judy Woodruff asked McCarthy how he intends to overcome the current strictures on government spending.

McCarthy’s response: “You know, the answer to me is that this country is great in part because we have certain core shared values. And I think the most important shared value that we all have, regardless of our perspective on economics or politics, is that this is a country where we care about opportunity. We care that parents can tell their kids that, if they work hard and they use their talents, they're going to get ahead.

“And if we don't invest in ensuring that that opportunity is really available for all of our children, we start to come apart as a country, and we lose one of our greatest strengths. So, I think this is actually a shared value. I should also point out that investing in children is not what's driving the deficit or the
debt. In fact, children represent a small portion of our overall budget.

“So, we ought to be investing smart, as well as recognizing we ought to deal with the problem today, but not in a way that's going to harm us in the future.”

One has to admire his optimism in the face of the permanent tone-deafness of Tea Party Republicans; and, in fact, the Democrats aren’t doing much heavy lifting on this urgent issue either. Talking is not the same as Doing.

So, it saddens me to tell you I believe Mr. McCarthy is headed for a crash into the indestructible wall of reactionary public policy planning.

Maybe the solution is to turn children’s poverty disaster over to Rep. Paul Ryan, who will fix it by turning it into a voucher program!

It’s time we asked ourselves: What will our country look like a generation from now if we all bleep out the callousness, the cruelty, the uncaring, the herd instinct, the incomprehensible hubris exhibited by lawmakers who continue to disgrace themselves and their country by ignoring, not their own children, but everyone else’s.

Syria: Looking Into The Abyss

By William Fisher

Last week, as Syrian dissidents continued to turn out in their tens of thousands – facing death -- to oppose President Basher el-Assad’s Syrian regime, the country’s cabinet took two steps that its embattled leaders hoped would quell the growing demands for Basher’s ouster.

The Cabinet endorsed a draft election law that would “regulate parliamentary elections” held every five years and establish a commission to “manage polls,” the state-run SANA news agency said.

That action followed the Cabinet’s endorsement of a bill allowing new parties to be formed. Previous elections have been monopolized by President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party, a situation enshrined in the constitution.

It’s difficult to understand how Mr. Assad could be that far out of touch with the demands of his own people and the condemnatory statements not just from the United Nations and “western governments,” but from such pillars of Arab power in the Middle East as The Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the aging but still powerful King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

And, on the day the Turkish Foreign Minister was in Damascus, failing in his efforts to mediate an end to the violence, 24 more Syrians died at the hands of Assad’s security forces on the first Friday of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists. For the week, the toll of dead was 84. The death toll is now more 2,000 and counting. And thousands of demonstrators injured or arrested and jailed.

And yet, the protests appear to grow stronger. Those risking their necks in the streets would be the first to find Assad’s band-aid proposals “a day late and a dollar short.”

But that’s far too mild. The protesters rejected the Cabinet’s proposals out of hand. Not surprising. That Assad at this late date – the protests began in March -- should now be proposing rudimentary “reforms” that should have been introduced years ago, is arguably the most dependable indication that Assad has lost the legitimacy to govern. The government’s performance was nothing short of pathetic.

But it is equally pathetic that while people are being shot down in the streets or tortured in Syria’s prisons, the world’s most powerful nations and institutions can do little more than wring their hands and threaten unspecified “consequences” for Mr. Assad to ignore.

Even the UN Security Council was not able to mobilize its members to use one of the Council’s larger weapons – a formal Resolution. China and Russia both have veto power, and both countries felt the urgent need to protect their commercial relationships with Syria. The Security Council was able to agree only on a Presidential Letter – an instrument not nearly as strong as a formal Resolution – condemning Assad’s massacres. The Council issued a statement Aug. 3 expressing “grave concern” at the deaths and human rights abuses.

The syntax was strong but the substance was just words.

Then there are those courageous Arab organizations that have been, as it were, busy fiddling while Damascus burned. The apparent cure for the Arab constipation was a statement on Wednesday from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. He said:

“Every sane Muslim and Arab or others are aware that [the crackdown] is not of religion, values, or ethics…What is happening in Syria is unacceptable to the Kingdom… Saudi Arabia…[demands] the stoppage of the killing machine and bloodshed…[and the] introduction and activation of reforms that are not entwined with promises, but actually achieved so that our brothers…in Syria can feel them in their lives as dignity, glory and pride.”

But we should not kid ourselves about The Good King. His remarks have absolutely nothing to do with Syrians living under the boot of a vicious police state. They have everything to do with strengthening Sunni Muslim influence vis a vis Syria’s close ties to Shia Iran.

Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. While Alawites constitute only about 12 per cent of Syria’s population, they have effective control of all the major levers of power, including the army and the security forces. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Observers believe that Assad will cling to power by whatever means as long as there are more Alawite soldiers than anti-Assad protesters.

So King Abdullah has zero interest in the anti-Assad movement. His main motive, as The Guardian put it, “is the hope of driving a wedge between Iran and a post-Assad Syria.”

But Abdullah’s hypocrisy surpasses embarrassing, considering that Saudis arguably have fewer human rights than Syrians. Besides, Saudi troops are now stationed in Bahrain helping the Sunni King to quell the rising protests of that country’s Shia majority.

And perhaps the ultimate irony is that, a couple of months ago, the Assad regime might have agreed to most of the demands of the protesters and continued to retain power. But that was then and now is now. And, like the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, Assad was way behind the curve. Now, the movement for change has probably gone too far to be stopped.

Everyone seems to know that except Mr. Assad.