Can’t We Care for Those Who Need Help the Most?

New Tax Agreement Helps Unemployed Minorities the Least

Sam Fulwood III wonders why our political leaders think it’s fair to care for the rich and healthy before the poor and needy.

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Wayne Pittman, 46, sits in his Lawrenceville, GA, home looking over unemployment papers. The jobless rate in November for black Americans remained at a stagnant 16 percent over the previous month. (AP/David Goldman)
Wayne Pittman, 46, sits in his Lawrenceville, GA, home looking over unemployment papers. The jobless rate in November for black Americans remained at a stagnant 16 percent over the previous month. (AP/David Goldman)

Even in the best of economic times, it is toxic to American fairness to shrug off any job disparities to favor the financial interest of wealthy people. But in down times like these, when the gulf between haves and have-nots has grown so wide and the impact on our minority communities is so desperate, it’s obscene to even consider giving relief to the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers.

Doing so, as the GOP-White House tax proposal offers, eviscerates the notion of fairness in economic policy. Worse, it tears at the social fabric of our nation, further dividing rich from poor and increasing the economic disparities between black and Latino Americans and their affluent and disproportionately white fellow citizens.

To be clear, 15.1 million Americans were out of work last month, according to figures released in the Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly report. That figure includes an unacceptably high 8.9 percent of white workers. But for minority Americans, the figures are staggering and consistently out of whack with the rest of the population. The jobless rate in November for black Americans remained at a stagnant 16 percent over the previous month, highest among the major worker groups surveyed in the report. For Latinos, the rate edged up to 13.2 percent from 12.6 percent in October.

With that dismal statistic as the national economic backdrop, the White House and Congress reached an agreement yesterday to allow an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone. President Barack Obama accurately said it was the best arrangement he could make with Republican leaders, who stood united to do nothing until Congress pushed through legislation that extended the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans. Rich folks especially included.

"Make no mistake, allowing taxes to go up on all Americans would have raised taxes by $3,000 for a typical American family and that could cost our economy well over a million jobs," Obama said, announcing the deal at the White House. Indeed, as my colleagues Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden pointed out today, the framework tax agreement negotiated by the Obama administration will keep or create 2.2 million new jobs over the two-year life of the proposed tax cut extension. Also included in the package are additional goodies, such as expanded refundable tax credits that promise help for 12 million poor families, nearly half of them minorities.

Sure, that’s all good news. But the bad news is, as CAP calculates, there will be 500,000 fewer jobs maintained or created because the president had to compromise on tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of American taxpayers. Those uncreated 500,000 jobs would have happened through a larger payroll tax break for all Americans, as CAP suggested. For unemployed Americans, especially black and Latino Americans, this means fewer job opportunities.

What’s more, it’s not clear that everyone is on board. Retiring Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) says he objected to any extension of tax cuts, no matter whether the recipients are middle class or rich. And some progressives such as Paul Krugman of The New York Times are urging Democrats to reject the deal to force an ideological showdown with the Republicans.

All this was politics at its ugliest. The missing link, lost in the wheeling, dealing, twisting, and turning, is the inhumanity of it all. Real Americans—especially real poor, black, and Latino Americans—are overlooked as political leaders of all persuasions bicker over the numbers. Virtually nobody—from congressional leaders to White House negotiators—expresses the targeted, specific, and appropriate alarm at the 2.9 million unemployed black Americans and 3 million out-of-work Latinos. Sure, the tax credits are great and welcomed, but only if you have an income-producing job in the first place.

It’s as if Americans accept extremely high unemployment rates among minorities. The 9.2 percent unemployment rate for white men is nothing to sneeze at in the severity of its disruption on the nation’s economy, but the double-digit rates among black and Latino men is an enduring epidemic in many hard-pressed black and Latino communities.

These monthly unemployment reports emerge and hardly anyone yawns, let alone yelps at the unfairness of it all. More outrage might be expected were this a Yahoo! News story about a sick seal at the local zoo or an AMBER Alert scare concerning a child missing for an hour at the shopping mall.

This is a national outrage, illustrating the inherent and structural inequality built into our economy. And it comes at a long-term cost to the quality of civic participation in our national life. How long can structural inequalities be tolerated without disrupting a shared sense of what it means to be an American across lines of race, class, and community? Could it be that political leaders just don’t care about the unfairness they exhibit to the neediest Americans when they craft tax cuts for rich folks but offer so little of specific design to help create jobs for unemployed and poor minority citizens? How else to explain it?

Kai Filion, a research analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, likened what needs to be done to heal the crisis in our national economy to what doctors do daily in every hospital. “It’s like triage in an emergency room,” Filion told The Washington Post earlier this year. “You take care of people who need the most help first and you help the others later.”

But the federal dealmakers did it just the opposite. They took care of the rich and healthy. So far, they seem oblivious to the cries of the poor and the needy. How can anyone signing on to this deal turn a deaf ear and blind eye to the rank unfairness of it?

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)