Deficit Commission’s Assault on Workers and the Poor

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice Ideas and Issues

hillman_bio_portraitNew York Staying in the guest room of an old ILGWU coop near Grand and FDR with a view of Brooklyn and the Williamsburg Bridge from one window and across the street the sprawling Hillman complex named after Sidney Hillman the old Amalgamated Clothing Workers leader, I could remember the vision of unions – and even government – to provide life to death strength for our members.  I say government, because these coops were all built as worker and retirement housing through federal financing programs in the 1950-60s.  To complete the cycle I was the guest of Sam Mitchell, a retired Canadian professor from Ottawa, who had inherited the place from an uncle, who had far outlived his father, my old friend and colleague, H. L. Mitchell, founder of the historic Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in eastern Arkansas almost 100 years ago.

There were some brief moments over the last 100 years where it was not politic to victimize the poor and workers.  Reading the propositions of the bi-partisan Deficit Commission and its total assault on citizen wealth, if there was any doubt, it’s crystal clear that at least many of the blue ribbons on this commission think those times are long gone.  The headlines have focused on spending cuts and adjustments, but this is much, much more and much, much less, and I don’t say this because all of the adjustments are wrong.

Sitting with my view of Brooklyn, I could read the morning paper, the New York Times, and its chart on the cuts which mislabeled some of the most severe anti-poor attacks as “tax increases.”   I assume they mean revenue increases, since the point was to eliminate entitlements like the critical ones for working families and low income workers, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the child tax credit, both of which have long enjoyed total bipartisan support whether Clinton or the Bushes or Obama at the top.

They want to save $24 billion by freezing federal and non-combatant salaries for three years moving the concept of an “all voluntary” army bias to public workers without reckoning with the impact there on families, communities, or anything else.   In the same spirit this commission’s leaders argued for cutting social security benefits for retirees, and remember those of us who need social security the most are lower income workers without fancy salaries and benefit programs.  Reducing automatic cost of living increases also would guarantee that we impoverish senior citizens depending on social security for their subsistence living.  I hope Mexico is read for all of the undocumented seniors that will be swarming across the border looking for lower living costs.

Some of the big headline “gasps” doesn’t worry me as much, frankly.  Changing the retirement age for social security to 69 by 2075 wouldn’t affect any workers alive now and is so far off in the political and economic future that it’s something that intellectually doesn’t bother me as much as not supporting real workers and their families now.

I argued in Citizen Wealth that we needed to redirect the lost tax revenues that have become nothing more than giveaways to the rich when they receive mortgage interest rate deductions.  The tax benefits that might make the difference in a working family entering home ownership do not really matter up the income scale and there’s evidence.  The rich continued to buy second homes (and third and fourth) even after the deductions disappeared there, and are still going to buy homes even without a deduction.

The other point I made before repeatedly, and that hopefully is being drummed in by the disaster of the great recession, is that we need to incentive other affordable housing options in multi-family housing, apartment construction, and, yes, public housing.  The ILGWU coop where I was staying was no long price capped, but had gone to market rates.  Estimates on the value of this “worker housing” in Manhattan were now between $450,000 and $1 million.  The coop itself, no longer in the business of safe guarding worker housing now gets 20% of any sale, though in my brief stay I couldn’t find out where that 20% goes.  So though the real estate lobbies and interest will lather up on this one, I actually believe that we need to reappropriate the tax revenues from reforming mortgage interest rate deductions to more effective affordable housing programs.  Unfortunately even agreeing on some of the Commission’s recommendations doesn’t really mean consensus, since they don’t want to reallocate, they want to recover the funds and pretend that workers and the poor don’t exist, never age, don’t need affordable housing options, and the rest.

What mischief!  Read Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times for even more here.

Fortunately Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky from Chicago is on this Commission, and she’s a freedom fighter.

Andy Stern, former chief of the Service Employees, is also a member.  There’s hope there as well though he was quoted as saying “at least people stayed in the room” in concern for the Republicans walking out.  I hope Andy doesn’t get to comfortable in this chair, because frankly I was surprised on reading the early reports that he was still in the room.

Someone has to stand up for the poor and workers here, because there is no question they are under assault both now, and as we can see, in the future.