There's Always Money For War

Okay, this is going to sound really naïve. It's the kind of question you'd expect from an earnest, if not slightly annoying, 12-year-old, not from a hard-boiled wonk like yours truly. But why is it that our representatives can easily raise endless amounts of money for war, but can't adequately fund human needs?

Exhibit #1: The Washington Post recently ran an important article documenting the loss of child-care subsidies to low-income, working parents. One of the lessons from welfare reform is that such work supports are a critical component of a pro-work, anti-poverty agenda. But because the program is terribly underfunded -- fewer than a fifth of eligible people receive help -- there's a huge waiting list, and families are left to give up on work or patch together less-than-desirable child-care situations.

Exhibit #2: If the president gets his way on budget requests over the next few years, and he always has, the Congressional Budget Office tells us that spending on the Iraq war will soon top $500 billion -- $746 billion if you throw in Afghanistan. According to OMBWatch, the Congress will soon begin evaluating the largest supplemental funding bill ever requested by an administration: just shy of $100 billion, mostly for the war on terror and its sundry components.

Exhibit #3: We currently spend about $5 billion a year at the federal level on the block grant that funds child care. Last year, we added a $1 billion increase over five years. A bill to dedicate $6 billion more died in the Senate. Because these values are not adjusted for either inflation or population growth, the demand for child-care slots is outpacing capacity. According to the Bush administration's own budget, if we fail to devote more resources to child care, by 2010, the families of 300,000 fewer children will get the help they need.

Exhibit #4: I recently testified before the Senate Finance Committee on the question of whether there needed to be $8 billion worth of tax cuts to businesses to offset the impact of the federal minimum wage increase. I argued that the cuts were unnecessary, but in this context, consider this point: Because tax cuts must now be paid for, the committee was able to come up with $8 billion of offsets to pay for these cuts.

In other words, when they want to, Congress can allocate or raise money. The problem, as put by my colleague Lawrence Mishel, is "... the direct consequence of maintaining other priorities. Some [policy makers] are wedded to maintaining the recent tax cuts. Many more believe we have to spend whatever it takes for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ... [o]thers believe that moving toward a balanced budget is essential. Whatever one thinks of these positions it is clear that the result is that human capital investments get the leftover fiscal scraps."

For those of us unhappy with this state of affairs, who believe that these are the wrong priorities, the big -- giant, really -- question is what has to change?

The answer, I think, comes from a meeting of top-down and bottom-up. Today's priorities are the result of politicians' perceptions that their constituents, at least the ones they care about, want government to wage war and cut taxes, not to provide child and health care. Thus, the first step in turning this around is to tap and nurture demand among the electorate for the best solutions to the problems we face. I've stressed child care for low-income workers because it's so important to their ability to escape poverty, but think of national health care in this light, along with retirement security and the inequalities associated with globalization.

Progressive policy advocates need to shape and promote an agenda that reaches people on these issues and is at the scale of the challenges they face. If such an agenda is articulated by a 2008 candidate, it may well start to resonate and reverberate in precisely the way that's needed to reshape the priorities of those who hold the purse strings. Then I can go back to being a hard-boiled wonk instead of a naïve ingénue who wants to trade guns for butter.

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