How Trump’s tax bill pits the rich against the poor

We are witnessing a government restructuring and a cultural divide widening.


California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.

“Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks” if you’re unemployed and poor, Herman Cain, a Republican presidential candidate and Tea Party favorite, back in 2011.

As protests against bank bailouts erupted across the country, Cain showed little empathy for the millions of people losing their jobs and homes. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, Cain declared, struck him as “anti-capitalism.”

His words came to mind recently when President Donald Trump signed the final version of a Republican tax bill that will not only cut taxes for large corporations and America’s wealthiest, but do so primarily by slashing trillions of dollars over the next decade from programs that serve low-income and middle-class families. The law puts at risk Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, income assistance and nutrition assistance programs, college tuition and job-training aid, and environmental protections. If Occupy Wall Street was considered anti-capitalist, then the new tax law is a love song to social Darwinism in its purest form, shamelessly pitting the 1 percent against the 99 percent.

Delmi Ruiz, 41, who is five months pregnant, works in the kitchen area of her RV parked in front of an apartment building, where the monthly rent for a one-bedroom unit is more than $3,000, in Mountain View, California. Ruiz and her husband, who works as a landscaper earning minimum wage, have been living with their four children in the RV for more than two years, after they could no longer afford the rent. California has some of the most expensive housing markets in the country as well as the highest poverty rate.
Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

In California, the divide is particularly stark. The state is home to Silicon Valley with its huge tech fortunes, and it boasts some of the nation’s most expensive housing markets. And yet, once the cost of living is factored in, it also has the highest poverty rate — at 20.6 percent. In Los Angeles alone, nearly 60,000 people live in makeshift camps or inside their cars on the streets and under the overpasses.

The state’s rich-poor gap affects all of us, particularly people like Vickie Cobbin. Many supporters of the tax bill would caricature the Los Angeles native as someone who refuses to work in order to cash in on welfare benefits and food stamps.

A few weeks ago, I heard Cobbin speak inside a church in downtown Los Angeles. A crowd of at least 100 people had gathered there as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, an economic and social justice movement originally led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and recently revived by Rev. William J. Barber II, a Protestant minister from North Carolina.

A tall and elegantly dressed black woman in her 50s, Cobbin started by saying she felt nervous speaking in public about personal matters, such as her past dependence on welfare. “Politicians make it sound like welfare recipients are lazy,” said Cobbin. “But I never sat around waiting for help. I just couldn’t come up with enough income to support us.”

Her worries reflect a common reality: During the tax debate in early December, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch the government couldn’t come up with the funds to support the popular and essential Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a 20-year-old federal-state program that provides health care for children in low-income families. Hatch claimed people were trying to game the system. “I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, who won’t lift a finger, and expect the federal government to do everything,” Hatch said.

But Cobbin, like many who rely on assistance to get by, has always done all she could to help herself. She raised three daughters completely on her own; the youngest of them, she told the crowd, just finished her graduate degree, following in her older sisters’ footsteps. Today, Cobbin no longer depends on government assistance or temporary minimum wage jobs. She works with Hunger Action LA to address hunger and poor nutrition among Los Angeles’ low-income residents. But she fears that the funding for programs like CalFresh and food stamps — $1.9 billion during the last fiscal year, almost half of which comes from the federal government — could disappear along with Medicare and Medicaid as a result of tax reform.

On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. … True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Today, we are witnessing how the government is indeed restructuring – but by robbing the poor in order to pay the rich, taking policy steps that will only deepen poverty and hunger across the country. Dr. King’s cautionary words have become painfully relevant once again.

Ten years after the financial crisis, Hatch and Cain’s sentiments are widely echoed by conservative lawmakers. What’s worse, I fear — as I look around my middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood, where people who are exhausted, anxious and broke after the holidays escape by binge-watching Netflix — too many of the rest of us have also accepted the politicians’ judgment. If the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, that is simply the price of living in a capitalist society.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

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