In the world of budget figures and government funding, $5 billion is not a lot, but how it’s spent can say a lot about the prerogatives of the people who make economic decisions in our society.
For example, under President Clinton’s new expanded military spending plan, the Bangor submarine base on Bainbridge Island will receive $5 billion to upgrade four submarines with new Trident II nuclear missiles. It will cost an estimated $1 billion to renovate each sub. The main reason given for the upgrade is that the new missiles have a range of 6,000 miles, instead of the 4,000 mile range of the old Trident missiles. When compared to the maximum range of North Korea’s “long-range missile”–about 650 miles–the urgency to upgrade these subs becomes sheer comedy.
Let’s do some other comparisons. What else could that money be used for in the State of Washington? Pres. Clinton recently proposed spending about $100 million per year to preserve open space in several states; only a portion of this would be spent here. Loathe to give away money for the environment without offering some of it to the wealthy, Clinton and Gore boosted the amount of the proposal by including about $700 million in tax credits to finance bond offerings. The bonds, of course, will be held by wealthy folks, who’ll receive regular interest payments from the federal government, out of taxpayer funds. No need to do this with defense contracts, however, which are direct gifts to corporations and their shareholders.
What we often forget is that the whole Reagan revolution (of which Presidents Bush and Clinton are descendants) was not just about the redistribution of wealth from the middle class and poor to the rich via the federal government, but also about dumping the costs of social programs onto state and local governments. Hence, welfare reform has become a state-by-state issue and universal health care coverage is now impossible, as health insurers leave our state and move to areas with the most lax and least costly regulations.
Gov. Locke has been boasting about how this state’s WorkFirst program has reduced the number of people on welfare in Washington by 24%. Those are, naturally, the most highly skilled, highly educated, and easily employed people on welfare. The rest are single parents with multiple children, people who don’t speak English, people with physical or mental disabilities, folks with minimal or no job experience, the functionally illiterate, and child-only cases. In fact, a major proportion of welfare recipients in most states are child-only cases–children who have been left with grandparents or other relatives by parents who are in prison, living on the streets, or who simply don’t want their own kids. Exactly how the states expect these children to go to work is never mentioned. And expecting grandparents, who have already raised one, two, or sometimes even three families, to go back to work is insane. Even in Wisconsin, which has the most stringent welfare-to-work program in the nation, the state has recognized that child-only cases can’t be treated this way, and they’ve moved these cases off the welfare rolls into a new system that pays relatives to care for abandoned children who would otherwise cost far more to place in foster care.
So Wisconsin has admitted that there are special groups of welfare recipients that don’t fit the myth of the “welfare queen.” Nevertheless, Wisconsin state officials have recently released statistics showing that people kicked off the dole and into minimum wage jobs are faring worse than they did on welfare, in spite of the state’s booming economy. For example, high numbers of them couldn’t afford to pay bills each month for utilities (47%), housing (37%), and food (32%). Literally, at least a third of these folks are being kicked off state assistance onto the street to starve; after leaving welfare, almost 50% of them said they were less able to buy groceries. Disturbingly, the Wisconsin study noted that the average wage for former welfare recipients was $7.42 per hour–just $1 per hour less than our state’s most employable WorkFirst participants are receiving. And notably, Wisconsin’s study was done after the most easily employed people had already left welfare. It’s a clear sign of what’s to come here in Washington state. A study done by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations and the UW’s Northwest Policy Center has found that, for our region, 70-80% of all job openings don’t provide enough income for a single parent with two children.
The money that Washington state has saved by dumping about a quarter of its welfare recipients off the rolls amounts to only $193 million. Whoopee. With $5 billion going down the drain to defense contractors for new missiles that will never be used and are a threat to our very survival, you’d think someone would notice this hypocrisy and say something–better yet, do something. Obviously such pragmatic, common sense observations are beyond the ability of our elected officials, who owe their blind allegiance to corporate constituents. It’s up to us to demand that money be diverted to social programs and not used to pay for useless military fluff.