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Taking from the poor to feed US defence

Unemployment levels are hovering around 8 per cent, forcing many to rely on government assistanceby Kimberly Halkett 

Republicans in the US House of Representatives on Thursday voted to cut a government subsidy programme known as “food stamps” that allows many low income Americans to eat. They also approved cuts to federal worker benefits and help for the elderly. Why? To avoid cuts to defence spending scheduled to take effect in 2013.

The legislation was passed after hours of passionate debate by Democrats and Republicans, and the fight is far from over. Democrats have vowed to halt the cuts in the Senate.

I listened to the arguments, made by politicians whose salaries start at roughly $175,000. Then my photographer Rob Michaud and I drove about six blocks to the other side of Capitol Hill, where incomes are significantly lower.

In fact, a large number of Capitol Hill residents rely on government assistance and live below the poverty line. It’s a stark contrast.

We met up with Chat Allen, who has been trying to support her three kids on a part-time job. It’s the only job she’s been able to find with unemployment still hovering at about 8 per cent.

Allen says she relies on food stamps to pay for her children’s groceries. She can’t understand why Congress would even consider taking them from her family. She believes Republicans voted to cut food stamps so wealthier Americans can keep paying low taxes.

“They have so much money that maybe they can tighten their belts and not live as luxuriously as they live," she said. "They’ve earned it, but there are people who are hungry and who dig in the trash every day just to get something to eat.”

Republican representatives claim cutting food stamps and other social programmes will save $261bn. Representative Rob Woodall says government spending has forced Congress to make the cuts.

“When you’ve increased the public debt in this country by 50 per cent in the last four years, you’re all out of giveaway decisions, all we have now are tough decisions," he said.

Republicans argue those tough decisions will prevent roughly $50bn in military spending cuts due to take effect in January.

How so? Well, this latest political showdown is a result of last summer’s debt ceiling crisis. Congress agreed to raise the US debt limit, a usually standard procedure supported by President Barack Obama, only if spending cuts of $1.2 trillion over ten years came with it.

But no one could agree on what to cut.

That indecision triggered an automatic clause mandating more than $1 trillion cuts to military and domestic programmes which the US defence secretary says would reduce US troops to levels not seen since the 1940s.

No one in Congress, Democrat or Republican, wants that to happen, so they’re trying to stop it by coming up with a plan to reduce spending.

Democrats want to raise taxes to pay for America’s costly entitlement programmes and slash tax breaks for the wealthy.  Republicans refuse to even consider new taxes.

That frustrates Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen, who on Thursday scolded Republicans.

“You won’t ask one penny more for people making more than a million dollars a year to help reduce our deficit? Not one penny more?" he asked.

Allen told me she still finds it shocking. Now she says she’s hoping her Senate Democrats will block the Republicans from making their legislation law. She admits she's nervous and wonders just how far Congress will continue cutting the subsidies she and so many Americans rely on to survive and get through another day.

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