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Commentary

Redirect the Rebate

July 08, 2001|KAREN KORNBLUH and FELICIA KORNBLUH | Karen Kornbluh is a fellow at the New America Foundation and former deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Treasury Department. Felicia Kornbluh is an assistant professor of history at Duke University

What's wrong with this picture? Later this year, U.S. states will cut off support to millions of poor children and their mothers who, if they're lucky, have a job but can't afford child care and, if they're not, may have no income at all.

Before then, thanks to the strenuous efforts of President Bush, $38 billion will leave the federal coffers so that families earning more than $72,000 will get a $595 "rebate," on average, and those earning $27,000 to $44,000 will receive $356. None of the beneficiaries of the Bush rebate will be poor families. Those too poor to pay taxes get nothing.

Twelve million children in our nation live in poverty--the highest poverty rate among children in the industrialized world. Almost 11 million have no health insurance. At the very moment when we're experimenting with removing the remaining safety net, couldn't we have found some way to spend this tax rebate money on helping those who are most vulnerable?

Under the five-year time limit established by the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996, 38,800 families in New York City alone face a federal welfare cutoff in December. Then what?

The one employment area that should be available to the women being invited to "reassess their lives and their progress toward achieving self-sufficiency" (as New York's welfare commissioner put it) is child care. As more low-income women struggle with multiple jobs, night shifts and jobs far from home, their children will need child care. However, the dollars just aren't there.

Advocates of the 1996 welfare law promised a large amount of child care at a reasonable level of quality. We're still waiting.

In the absence of affordable child care, we face an epidemic of latch-key children.

Even if one agreed with the twin goals of kick-starting the economy and getting more poor women into the job market, the Bush plan makes no sense. The best way to improve consumer spending is to give money to people who will actually spend it.

Study after study has shown that the people who spend the highest percentage of their income are the poor. A tax cut that is tailored to how much families pay in taxes--giving more to those who earn more--will skew benefits in precisely the wrong way.

We badly need to reassess our approach to poverty and to family and budget policies. Meanwhile, if you're a person who still asks what you can do for your country (rather than "Why hasn't my country bought me a DVD player recently?"), find a charity that supports poor kids and endorse your rebate to them. You'll help a poor family and make a statement about our nation's priorities.

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