At 50 years old, John has battled homelessness since 1986, and as a veteran of what he called "the homeless experience," he is in touch with society's most overlooked citizens. He also sees how the U.S. government, in emphasizing foreign policy over domestic issues, has abandoned society's most marginalized citizens.
"The powers that be have drastically failed the working class and underclass of this country. They have taken defense spending to a greater degree than they should have and have gotten out of touch with reality itself. They have left us struggling," John said indignantly, as he and more than 200 people lined up in the bare soup kitchen run by the Street Ministries at 212 N. Alamo St.
"We always manage to have food. I know that it might sound 'churchy,' but we have been blessed," explained the director, Winnie Martin, who is not related to this story's author. She and her crew of part-time staff and volunteers manage to pull together a free meal every morning, except Saturdays. This is not easy after a year of unemployment increases in San Antonio; people have fallen through the holes of the social safety net and landed on the street. According to Martin, "the population on the street is heavier, because of downsizing and the recession. When I started here in 1982, we served a thousand a month; now we're serving over four thousand a month."
The recession has exposed how woefully insufficient our social services safety net is. It is to be expected that after 20 years of cuts in government social programs for low-income people, the operational burden has shifted from the public to the private sector. But private non-profits like the Food Bank barely provide a Band-Aid for social ills. For example, according to Eric Cooper, executive director of the San Antonio Food Bank, "there has been a dramatic decrease in food stamp participation, while food banks throughout the country, and in San Antonio, have seen an increase in recipients of emergency food. But the food stamp program was a program that met a more significant need."
As part of a national study, the Conference of Mayors surveyed hunger in San Antonio and found a 15 percent increase in unmet need over the past year. Thus, the Street Ministries is not alone in experiencing a growing demand, Cooper explains. The Food Bank acts like a "grocery store," supplying over 300 non-profit organizations in the San Antonio area. The downturn in the economy has cut into the Food Bank like a double-edged sword: Donations of costly items like meat have disappeared, while, simultaneously, demand for them has increased.
"We are just not able to meet the need," Cooper adds. "People could get on food stamps for months, but when they come to us, they get a three-day supply of food, once a month. We are not a welfare program, we are not in it for the long run."
How did we get in this situation? Remember those tax cuts for the wealthy and the huge increases in military spending under the Reagan Administration? Well, predictably (and intentionally, according to David Stockman, Reagan's director of the Office of Management and Budget) the federal budget exploded. In turn, the budget deficit was used to justify cuts in social programs that helped low-income people, and shifted the burden of these programs onto the states. After 20 years of such cuts, including the 1996 "welfare reform," it is not surprising that at this moment when the social safety net is most needed, it frays.
According to Frances Fox Piven, coauthor of Regulating the Poor and a professor at the Graduate Center of State University of New York: "The 'work first' regime introduced in 1996 assumed that almost everyone could get a job, and that any kind of job was better than welfare. So, 'welfare reform' meant making welfare hard to get and harder to keep. Now, however, many of the women pushed off the rolls under 'welfare reform' are losing the low wage jobs they managed to get. The vast majority is ineligible for unemployment insurance, and welfare, which was once the unemployment insurance program of low wage workers, is not likely to be available either. Recession is bad for everyone, but our welfare policies are making it a true catastrophe for the poor."
Now, the "compassionate conservative" President George W. Bush has proposed to cut federal support for welfare by 2 percent this year and 22 percent by 2006.
Moreover, his budget proposal also includes a cut of 11 percent for job training and employment funding. On the income spectrum, according to Citizens for Tax Justice, 64 percent of last year's $1.35 trillion tax cut will go to the top 1 percent income earners over the long term, while the so-called "economic stimulus package" will reduce corporate taxes by $114 billion, or more than a fifth, over the next three years. The only provision for unemployed workers is limited to a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits to those whose 26-week benefit limit has expired. This represents a minority of unemployed workers.
In addition to proposing welfare and job training cuts, Bush has proposed a 19 percent increase in military spending. According to Frida Berrigan, a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute: "If President Bush has his way, total military spending for 2003 will reach $396 billion, an $87 billion increase from January 2001. It would be the largest increase since the Reagan administration.
"But this spending spree has little to do with fighting the war on terrorism. About one-third of the $68 billion allocated for weapons procurement will pay for Cold War systems with no relevance to the current war."
At the Street Ministries soup kitchen, John appears bewildered, "With so many people truly in need, how can you morally justify that?"
The answer is you can't. But by using the threat of war against Iraq as justification, one can expect the Bush administration to bloat the military budget while shafting the poor.
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