Congress stands in danger of being perceived as a reverse Robin Hood - taking money from the poor to give to the rich.
Pending budget resolutions, especially one moving through the House, would shrink programs that help low-income folk in favor of tax cuts aimed primarily at the more prosperous.
Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, reckons these programs, such as Supplemental Security Income for the aged and disabled poor, could be cut by more than $25 billion over the next four years.
Those savings would permit removal of the so-called marriage tax penalty, a plan dear to the Republican leadership. It appeals strongly to middle-class, two-income families that often vote Republican.
Old-fashioned hard-nosed politics is at work here. Low-income citizens don't vote proportionately as much as the well-to-do, limiting their influence in Congress. And when they do vote, they're more likely to support Democrats.
Under present budget rules, any cut in taxes must be offset by equal trims in spending or by tax hikes. Tax increases are out for Republicans. Moreover, hard experience has taught them that even talk of a cut in a program such as Medicare that benefits a wide swath of voters can be used as a campaign issue against them. By contrast, the welfare-reform bill had few negative political consequences.
At risk of cuts are the Earned Income Tax Credit, particularly for childless workers earning less than $10,000; the foster-care program; the child-support enforcement program; social-services block grants; food-stamp benefits; welfare-to-work block grants, and so on. This prospect makes some Republican moderates uneasy.
When Congress returns July 5, it will have another crack at a budget resolution and tackle specific appropriations bills. Some observers expect legislation in September to modestly raise taxes on cigarettes, cut the marriage penalty - and, unfortunately, trim low-income programs.
Such cuts could tend to erode the stability of American society. Federal programs such as these help to moderate the winner-take-all tendencies of our free-enterprise system. They are proofs of some compassion in society. They ensure that those who pick the nation's vegetables and mow the lawns of the better-off get a bit more reward for their work.