I've lived out my entire life in a sheltered, middle-class bubble. When I think back to middle and high school, I realize that the greatest concerns my friends and classmates usually faced were prom dates and bad grades on pop quizzes. We always had a hot meal on the table at dinner time. Always had the latest cell phones, the newest fashions from Abercrombie & Fitch, and the trendiest shoes.
Now that I'm away from home, my eyes have been opened to the struggles that millions of people face. Back in middle school and high school I wouldn't have cared about President Bush's new budget. I would have been too wrapped up in finding a perfect dress or a boyfriend, getting my license, getting a car, or convincing my mom to extend my curfew by 20 minutes on Friday nights. But because I know more now, after learning what I've learned in two years as a college student, I do care. A lot. And you should, too.
On February 7, President Bush sent a budget to Congress that includes billions of dollars for the Pentagon and Homeland Security. At the same time, the budget will cut federal spending on some of the programs that our country needs the most, specifically those that provide aid to the poor.
According to an article published by The Trenton Times on February 8, New Jersey will be especially vulnerable as purse strings are tightened across the nation.
"The state, facing its own budget crisis, will feel the pinch with proposed federal cuts in foster care, public housing, clean water, and some education programs as well as static funding for welfare, children's health care and Head Start," noted reporters J. Scott Orr and Robert Cohen.
With the diminishment of so many important service programs in New Jersey alone, how will the rest of the nation's poverty stricken citizens fare?
The most recent report on the matter published by the United States Census Bureau, "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2003," was not promising. Our nation continues to be one of the wealthiest in the world. Yet at the same time, compared to all other industrial nations, the U.S. has the highest proportion of its population living under the poverty line. Still our President continues, for a second term, to turn the other cheek.
The Office of Management and Budget defined the average poverty threshold for a family of four in 2003 as $18,810; for a family of three, $14,680; for a family of two, $12,015; and for single individuals, $9,393. It doesn't take a genius to see that these paltry sums of money are nowhere near the income that is needed to support a family today. To think that a family of four can keep a home, eat three healthy meals a day, and have decent clothing on their backs with less than $20,000 is absurd, ridiculous, and more than just a tad disturbing.
What's even more disturbing are the numbers of Americans who fall below this pitiful threshold. In 2003, 35.9 million people fell under the poverty line. Of these, 7.6 million, people belong to poverty stricken family units. Most of these millions are innocent children. That is 12.5 percent of our total population. 12.5 percent of the people living in the world's most powerful nation do not have the money or resources that they need to survive.
For these people, there can be no "American Dream." There are no houses with white picket fences, no happy children playing in large grassy backyards with puppies, no shining new cars parked in the drives. The only dream that these 35.9 million people can allow themselves is the dream that someday they will not have to worry about where their next meal will come from.
Now, let's examine where the money that Bush has cut from valuable social welfare programs is going. Bush's new budget allots $419.3 billion to the Pentagon, up 4.8 percent from last year. He will also give $34.2 billion in funding to Homeland Security, a 6.8 percent jump from 2004.
In essence, President Bush has deemed that rather than fighting a war on poverty in our own nation, it is instead necessary to continue fighting the Iraqi war, the war on terror, the war to discover weapons of mass destruction that do not actually exist, the war on all middle eastern people, or whatever he is calling it these days.
Today, the war in Iraq has cost the United States close to $160 billion. This is a number that continues to rise every day, every minute, and every second - and there doesn't seem to be any end in sight. Here are some interesting statistics about what could have been done with this enormous sum of money instead, courtesy of The National Priorities Project:
- The government could have paid for 21 million children to attend a year of Head Start.
The government could have provided decent health insurance to 94 million children for one year.
School districts across the United States could have hired 2.7 million additional public school teachers for one year.
7.6 million students could have received four-year scholarships to the pubic universities.
1.4 million additional housing units could have been built
Angry yet? Are you wondering how the most powerful man in our country is able to get away with depriving his citizens of the basic things they need for survival in order to fund an unnecessary war? Well, so am I. And so, it seems, is a large portion of the American public.
According to a joint poll conducted by The New York Times and CBS news at the end of February, "Americans say President Bush does not share the priorities of most of the country on either domestic or foreign issues."
Sixty-three percent of the poll's participants feel that the President has different priorities on domestic issues than most Americans, citing his recent policies concerning Social Security, jobs and health care. Additionally, 58 percent of respondents said that the White House did not have the same view on foreign affairs as most Americans.
Still, it is not too late to change, or at least try to change. Something must be done about President Bush's lackadaisical attitude towards our nation's poor, and it must be done before the programs that have sustained America's poverty stricken are lost forever.
In 1962, sociologist Michael Harrington published a revolutionary study about America's lower class called The Other America. In it, he argued that America's poor were invisible to the middle and upper-classes due to a variety of factors. He noted that they were isolated from the rest of the country in ghettos and slums. He also said that their clothing did not distinguish their personal struggle, because "America has the best dressed poverty the world has ever known." He observed that since many of our poverty stricken are either elderly or extremely young, they remained hidden when we went about our daily business. Perhaps most importantly, Harrington said that their lack of a voice left them politically invisible.
Over 40 years have passed, and I'm sad to report that not much, if anything, has changed. The poor are still invisible for all of these reasons. But they are invisible for one more: President Bush does not want to see them, nor does he wish for the rest of America to see and recognize their plight.
Until President Bush opens his eyes and reprioritizes, there can be no relief for the poor. His wasteful wartime spending and 2005 budget are just two factors in an endless equation that consistently short-changes the lower classes. But it's enough to make me think that outside of my sheltered life, there are people who are suffering. They need the help of the American people and the federal government if they are to survive.
Paige Nestel is a sophomore Journalism/Professional Writing major with a minor in Sociology at The College of New Jersey. She is the Opinions/Business & Government editor of unbound. In addition to her work with unbound, she is also a staff writer for The Signal, TCNJ’s student newspaper.