Concerns over the fate of the nation’s social safety net were expressed this week in an elaborate demonstration held by a group of area clergy members outside of the downtown Chicago office of U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin.
Headed by a coalition of community groups called Make Wall Street Pay Illinois, nearly 50 protesters stood in front of the John C. Kluczynski Federal Building Thursday to call on the prominent Democrat to find a solution to the impending debate in Washington over the federal budget, and to pledge to reject any plan that cuts funding to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Congress has until the end of the year to work out a deal that staves off an automatic expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts coupled with military and domestic spending cuts estimated to total $800 billion.
If allowed to go over what has been called the “fiscal cliff”, many economists believe the effect could possibly pull the nation back into recession. In a recent report released by the Congressional Budget Office, it projected such measures would cause a decrease in the country’s Gross Domestic Product, having a negative impact on the job market.
“That contraction of the economy will cause employment to decline and the unemployment rate to rise to 9.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013,” the report stated.
The debate over exactly how to avoid that scenario has been a hot-button issue among Democrats and Republicans for more than a year, with both sides unable to agree on a bipartisan deficit reduction plan.
Democrats have supported an approach that combines spending cuts with a tax rate increase on incomes exceeding $250,000 a year, bumping them up from 35 percent to 39 percent, while Republicans have said they would reject any plan that included raising taxes on anyone.
Durbin, who was a member of the “Gang of Six” senators who attempted to come up with a bipartisan debt reduction plan, has come under fire for supporting compromises that include cuts in federal programs, as well as a raise of the retirement age to 67 for Social Security benefits.
The group demanded Durbin commit to a plan that cut the Bush tax cuts for the top two percent of income earners, and that he support the proposed Financial Transaction Tax, or Robin Hood tax, which would call for a $.50 fee for stock transactions worth $100 or more.
According to Marilyn Pagàn-Banks, president of the advocacy group IIRON, Durbin has been on the wrong side of the issue, and needs to focus more on developing a plan that would ensure social programs that provide help Americans stay intact.
“Senator Durbin, you have always been our ally in the fight for justice, we have counted on you to choose life over death, justice over injustice, and to fight for all of God’s people,” Pagàn-Banks told the crowd. “But Senator Durbin, in our recent meetings with you over the past few months, you have failed to rule out a ‘Grand Bargain’ that would cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – and that ain’t right.”
Here is more from Pagàn-Banks, as well as remarks from several other religious leaders who spoke at the event:
The rally ended with protesters smashing a symbolic “golden calf”, which they said represented the dangers in cherishing money over the welfare of people.
“In the holy scriptures, the prophets of old warned the leaders and the powerful of the dangers of idolatry,” said Rev. Thomas Gaulke, a pastor at First Lutheran Church of the Trinity, located in Bridgeport. “When a balancing of the budget means deep cuts to the poor and the vulnerable rather than a small sacrifice from the rich and powerful among us, what we see before us are the results of idolatry.”
Scenes from the demonstration can be seen here:
The group planned for a larger rally to take place Friday afternoon downtown at Pritzker Park, where they expected a crowd of several hundred supporters to attend. As we reported earlier today, there were arrests made at the Kluczynski Federal Building as protesters returned to make their voices heard once again.
The actions are part of a national movement to call for increased taxes on the rich and a protection of the social safety net. A series of actions are set to take place across the country until November 14.
The issue over the budget deficit has become such a high priority that it prompted Pres. Obama to contact congressional leaders one day after his re-election, according to reports, in order to work on a deal before the automatic cuts go into effect. Obama's first public remarks after wining a second term also covered this issue, as we reported earlier today.