For Bush—and Us—The Devil Is in the Details

Editor’s note: We recently got a spam e-mail reporting that the Supreme Court had ruled that there could be no Nativity scene in Washington this Christmas because there were no wise men and no virgins in the nation’s capital. But it said there was no problem in finding enough asses to fill the stable.

As our guest analyst says below, when it comes to grasping the nitpicking, anti-social character of the doings of the Bush White House and of its right-wing operatives on Capitol Hill, “the devil is in the details.” The baleful impact of their chicanery gets minimal attention in the news media.

Dr. David Hilfiker, a physician and an authority on medical care for the indigent, is the author of several books, including Not All of Us Are Saints (1994) and Urban Injustice: How Ghettoes Happen (2002). What follows is an excerpt from his recent article “The Stealth Attack on the Poor,” in The New Labor Forum, a journal published at Queens College in New York City. For his full text, see www.qc.edu/newlaborforum.

The Bush administration’s stealth attack on the poor has gone almost unnoticed. There has been no “shock and awe,” no massing of the troops, no nightly commentaries. Indeed, the attack on the poor is camouflaged in “minor” regulatory changes, routine reauthorizations, “voluntary” block grants, budgetary complexities and other arcana, almost as if our eyes were supposed to glaze over before we really understood. Place the many pieces on the table together, however, and the breadth and the depth of the attack become startling.

The number of well-functioning programs with bipartisan support that the Administration proposes tinkering with is breathtaking—a little sand in the gears here, some water in the gas tank there.

Head Start, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the school lunch and school breakfast programs, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), successful housing programs, child care, and other programs are all lined up for changes. In most cases, however, understanding how the proposed changes will actually affect the poor requires more than a cursory look at each program and each proposed change. The devil is in the details.

The school lunch and school breakfast programs, for instance, have broad public support. By providing free or low-cost meals for schoolchildren from poor and near-poor families, these programs are widely credited with reducing hunger and malnutrition among the nation’s children. Aside from the Reagan administration’s notorious attempt to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable, has anyone objected to this program? Apparently so. Responding to one study showing that 27 percent of children enrolled in the program are actually ineligible, the Bush administration wants documentation of income level from all applicant families to “reduce fraud and error.”

On the surface, it’s a reasonable goal. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), however, has taken a closer look, revealing the numerous problems that make the income estimates suspect. For starters, almost 75 percent of families declared “ineligible” were actually families that simply didn’t respond to requests for documentation.

The Bush Administration apparently also hopes to drive people out of the Earned Income Tax Credit program (EITC) by the same gambit—requiring more documentation.

The EITC is a provision of the tax code that provides a refundable tax credit to working families. It is the most successful anti-poverty program the federal government administers, bringing more children out of poverty than any other program. Created by Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the early 1970s, EITC has a long history of bipartisan support. Studies show that it encourages work. What could be wrong with it?

The problem is that a 1999 Internal Revenue Service (IRS) study showed an error rate of 20 to 25 percent, involving up to $9 billion a year. It isn’t quite as bad as it looks, however. Most errors, it turns out, are honest mistakes stemming from a notoriously complicated form for claiming the EITC.

THE CAMOUFLAGE—President Bush chooses to go after the working poor—those with the least political power and the most to lose. But one would hardly notice the assault without paying close attention.