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Speaking Truth to Bush

Looking at those depressing new poverty statistics released by the Census Bureau last week, it’s tempting for liberals to lay all the blame on President Bush. The percentage of Americans living in poverty rose last year, on Bush’s watch, by four-tenths of a percent, or about 1.7 million people. It was the second straight year that poverty increased, after five successive years of decreases. That is, poverty went steadily down under the previous Democratic administration and started rising as soon as Bush came on the job.

It’s tempting to blame Bush, but it’s misleading. The fault is only partly his. He didn’t burst the high-tech bubble that was driving much of the last decade’s boom, launching the economy into recession. Nor did he create the crisis of terrorism and Islamic rage that has plunged the international community into ever-deepening gloom, dampening investor confidence and souring economies worldwide.

True, Bush’s economic policies haven’t helped the situation. His massive tax cuts have channeled some cash into consumers’ hands — new Commerce Department figures last week showed personal income rising in July and August — but they’ve mostly been an economic waste, lining the pockets of the wealthy with no hint of trickle-down. They’ve worsened the skyrocketing federal deficit without stemming the economy’s steady hemorrhaging of jobs. On both scores — deficit creation and job loss — Bush’s fecklessness has now won him presidential records. But the underlying gloom is not his doing.

What is Bush’s fault is the continuing effort by his administration and its congressional allies to make it harder for the poor to get government help, just when help is most needed. Step by step, the administration has methodically tightened the screws on poor people seeking federal assistance during the last year: tightening rules on welfare assistance to needy families, cutting budgets for job training, sloughing off responsibility for Medicaid onto the states and blocking the extension of unemployment benefits. Taken together, this administration’s actions add up to a multifront war against the poor.

The worst of it is that it is so unnecessary. Bush ran for office on a claim that he was a “compassionate” conservative. His one-on-one rapport with ordinary working people is legendary. No one who meets him comes away doubting his sincerity. The rabbis who attended this week’s White House meeting with the president to welcome the Jewish new year, as reported by Ami Eden on Page 1, describe a chief executive who seems to care and thinks his policies are helping. And, as a president who famously doesn’t read newspapers, doesn’t meet his critics and gets his news in digests prepared by his aides, he truly may not know any better.

For all those reasons, we salute the boldness of Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, the Virginia cleric who spoke up on Monday and told Bush face to face that his policies are hurting people. If more people of faith spoke up, the president might start to listen.

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