Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) had a tumultuous election to his post as House speaker in January. It took him 15 votes and innumerable compromises to secure his position tenuously. The deal he agreed to allows any House member to call his leadership into question, voting him out at the drop of a hat. As the House grapples with budget and debt ceiling issues, McCarthy is walking a tightrope that puts our nation’s international credit standing at risk and may also have killing results for poor people, seniors and veterans.
The debt ceiling and the budget are two separate things that McCarthy and his extremist colleagues have managed to twin. The debt ceiling addresses the money we owe and has already spent. Raising the debt ceiling will pay the bills that we have racked up in the past. The budget deals with current spending on defense, social programs, health care and other issues. There is, of course, a relationship between the two. When the budget is imbalanced, we add to our deficit and push the need to raise the debt ceiling. But one issue can be dealt tackled without dealing with the other. The debt ceiling is an immediate issue. The current budget and the debt it may incur is a longer-term issues.
President Biden would like to raise the debt ceiling with no conditions. McCarthy and his cronies want to cut the budget before they raise the debt ceiling. They would, of course, maintain defense spending at its current level or higher. If they have their way, domestic spending will drop by 22%, affecting everything from veteran medical care to school funding for low-income students and those with disabilities. Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, says as many as 108,000 teachers and aides may lose their jobs because of these potential cuts. We spread over 50 states; those cuts may seem modest – eliminating about 2100 jobs per state. There are already teacher shortages. Will the McCarthy plan make these shortages worse?
The McCarthy proposal hits poor people especially hard. It would eliminate preschool and child care for hundreds of thousands of students. It would reduce nutrition assistance for millions and cut the Meals on Wheels program, which provides more than a million seniors with food assistance. These reductions are just the tip of the iceberg if 22% cuts are implemented. McCarty’s proposals would eliminate student debt relief, increase energy and housing costs, and reduce safety inspections. Already, Congress has debated reducing programs that offered relief during COVID, including the Child Tax Credit. Such reductions would push more families into poverty.
The attacks on poor people are recurrent. Extremist Republicans seem to have contempt and antipathy for those hard-working people who live with low wages and challenging working conditions. If these people disappeared tomorrow, would our society survive? At the same time, if the McCarthy proposals were implemented, would our nation’s poor survive?
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “poverty was linked to at least 183,000 deaths in the United States in 2019 among those aged 15 or over.” That makes poverty the fourth-leading cause of death in this country, with death tolls only exceeded by heart disease, cancer and smoking. The McCarthy approach to the debt ceiling will exacerbate poverty and increase the number of deaths connected to poverty. Poverty is an economic drag, affecting productivity, health care costs and more. It also contributes to the falling life expectancy that the United States is now experiencing. Rev. William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, describes inaction on poverty as a form of “policy murder.” Others see rising poverty as a public health emergency.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his extremist colleagues seem blissfully unaware of the impact of their extreme budget-cutting actions. The debt ceiling has been raised or revised 78 times since 1960, 49 times under Republican presidents and 29 under Democrats. Democrats have typically agreed to increase the debt ceiling because of our international credit rating. Republicans are now using this situation to push an agenda that will increase poverty and kill people.
To be sure, McCarthy’s extremist proposal isn’t likely to pass the Democratic Senate. But time is running out to increase the debt ceiling, and this game of brinkmanship damages our international reputation and potentially hurts people experiencing poverty. McCarthy and his cronies prefer posturing to poverty reduction. Their stunning indifference to poverty is an alarming rejection of the income-challenged people who voted for them.
Malveaux is an economist, author and dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.