Clyburn hopes to use supercommittee post to tackle growing wealth gap

A leading House Democrat is hoping to use his prestigious seat on the deficit-cutting supercommittee to close the growing gully that divides the rich and the poor in America.

Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.) said the recent debate over slashing spending and reducing deficits has all but ignored the toll those cuts could exact on lower income folks, particularly in minority communities. Clyburn – the third-ranking House Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) – is vowing to use his perch on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to tackle the nation's enormous wealth gap.

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"In 1963, Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] expressed disbelief that the vault of opportunity in this great country was empty. Yet in 2011, the gap continues to grow wider between those who enjoy great wealth and those who struggle to get by with little thought of ever getting ahead," Clyburn said in a statement reacting to his appointment on the deficit panel.

"Too often, the human side gets lost in the Washington debates about our nation's debt and deficits," he added. "I will seek to keep those interests on the table."

Many liberals in and out of Congress have attacked the Republicans' budget strategy for focusing on steep cuts to domestic and safety-net programs, while excluding any new stimulus spending or tax-revenue increases. The critics argue that the unbalanced nature of that strategy puts a bulk of the deficit-reduction burden on low- and middle-income families, while corporations and wealthy Americans are left off the hook.


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As part of the package to raise the debt ceiling, for instance, Congress locked in more than $900 billion in domestic spending cuts up front, and created the supercommittee to identify at least $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction. There were no stimulus provisions or revenue hikes.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) suggested last week that Congress is exacerbating the jobs crisis with such cuts.

"With 13.9 million Americans still out of work, the path to employment is long, and full of roadblocks," Engel said. "Unfortunately, the federal government has been placing some of those obstacles up themselves."

Clyburn said he'll be pushing for revenue raisers – not just cuts – in the next round in order to "secure our nation's financial future in a fair and balanced way that requires shared sacrifice and creates opportunity for all Americans.”

He has his work cut out.

While Democrats are insisting on tax-revenue increases as part of the package, Republicans are equally as adamant that they be excluded.

"We were not elected to raise taxes or take more money out of the pockets of hardworking families and business people,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) wrote Monday in a memo to fellow Republicans.

If the panel fails to reach an agreement by Thanksgiving, an automatic trigger would cut $1.2 trillion in federal spending, mostly from Medicare and the Defense Department.

There's also a racial element to the nation's wealth gap. Analysts at the Pew Research Center reported last month that the median wealth of white households is $113,149 – 20 times greater than that of black households ($5,677) and 18 times greater than that of Hispanic households ($6,325). The divide is the widest it's been since the government began keeping such figures 25 years ago, Pew found.



Most Democrats are pushing to reverse many of the Bush-era tax cuts, like the reductions in the capital gains and estate taxes, which provide handsome benefits to those with accumulated wealth, but do almost nothing to help lower income families with few assets.


Subtle prejudices might also help explain why the wealth gap is growing.

After the housing bubble popped, for instance, researchers at Harvard University discovered that, among blacks and whites of similar incomes, mortgage lenders targeted blacks more often for sub-prime loans, even when they were eligible for less risky arrangements.

The lingering jobs crisis has also affected minorities disproportionately. While the national unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, the figure soars to 15.9 percent for black workers – roughly twice the 8.1 percent rate for whites.

In response, the CBC has launched a national tour to highlight the employment disparities facing certain communities and to promote a series of proposals the members say would create jobs.

A number of CBC members – including Clyburn, CBC Chairman Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) – will be in Detroit on Tuesday as the tour moves around the country.

It's hardly the first time Clyburn has taken on the politics of race and poverty. For years, the South Carolina Democrat has been pushing legislation – dubbed the 10-20-30 plan – to direct at least 10 percent of federal rural development spending to communities where at least 20 percent of the population have lived below the poverty line for at least the last 30 years.

Clyburn, the son of a minister, refers to the plan as “tithing."