Conserving compassion


HERE'S A NOVEL idea for how to help people so poor they can't afford to pay even a nominal monthly charge for public housing: Raise the rent.

The Bush administration reckons that is a "reasonable way to promote work and responsibility" among the overwhelmingly female underclass of American society that is already struggling -- often without skills and burdened with children -- to find jobs where there are none.

Maybe this is supposed to be some kind of tough love to inspire slackers. But in the context of the president's budget proposals -- which slash through the fabric of the social safety net yet offer tax cut windfalls to richest of the rich -- it just looks mean.

Currently, tenants of public housing complexes or those who receive vouchers for private rentals are charged monthly rents of no more than $50. They are usually asked to pay 30 percent of their incomes. But in many cities, including Baltimore, tenants with no income aren't charged any rent.

Mr. Bush wants those who receive federal help with housing to pay at least $50 a month. Officials say such a requirement would boost operating funds for public housing agencies, as well as clamp down on freeloaders capable of paying something.

But with unemployment at 6 percent -- not counting the million people so discouraged they have stopped looking for work--mandatory rents could push thousands out into the streets.

This comes at a time when the president is also proposing to freeze and thus effectively reduce health care funds for the poor, education aid to schools in poor neighborhoods, and child care assistance for the working poor.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who for decades has been a leading advocate for the nation's most vulnerable citizens, called the budget "a rip-off for the rich that starves our schools, health care and even homeland security."

Mr. Bush's proposals to squeeze social programs are not as ruthlessly cold-hearted as those advanced by the Republican Congress in the mid-1990s. But in those days, lawmakers at least had the excuse of trying to balance the budget.

The Bush administration has given up on the deficit, which his proposals allow to balloon through the end of the decade. Instead of trying to balance the books, the president is racing deeper and deeper into debt by coupling massive defense spending with another eye-popping round of tax cuts.

People who pay the most in taxes naturally stand to reap the most in tax relief. But it's hard to escape the cruelty of demanding a few bucks more from a struggling single mother or a once-homeless drug addict trying to reassemble a shattered life while giving a hefty break to millionaires cashing in stock dividends.

President Bush talks a lot about compassion. Apparently what he means is Americans are supposed to be compassionate with one another. He's easing the government out of the compassion business.

But lending support to the weakest among us is what many Americans expect from their government -- not offering aid to the already comfortable.

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