WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- The Bush administration's 2003 federal budget proposal was criticized Wednesday by groups that said it was unfair to low-wage workers and their families because of rising unemployment and the failure of the economic stimulus package to emerge from Congress.
"We're concerned about America's low-wage working families with children," said Hugh B. Price, National Urban League president, at the National Press Club in Washington. "This is a vast army of unemployed workers, hotel workers, restaurant workers, retail and small business workers who were displaced and now find themselves stranded."
The NUL and other groups gathered there to draw attention to the Bush White House's policies on unemployment, the failed economic stimulus package, Social Security and the impact on women and minorities.
Price called the families thrown out of work after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington the "living victims" who have lost their livelihood in the worsening recession.
Price said he saw a variety of factors converge to affect low-wage workers: the recession, the looming $80 billion federal deficit blamed on Bush's 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut; and time limits on welfare payments to displaced employees.
Also at issue for Price and others was the proposed economic stimulus package that failed as Senate Democrats and the White House haggled over tax cuts and expanded jobless benefits. A $100 billion version of the economic stimulus bill was approved in October by the U.S. House of Representatives and backed by the White House.
In late December, however, the House ushered through a revised bill that included more benefits for displaced workers, apparently the sticking point for Senate Democrats.
Differences remained, however, with the White House supporting, among other things, a refundable tax credit to displaced workers that they could immediately use to purchase health insurance benefits. Democrats were dissatisfied with the tax credit and wanted instead provisions providing direct payments to workers and increased unemployment insurance benefits.
"They need to stop holding working people hostage," Price said, adding that bipartisan consensus had been reached on worker benefits that could have allowed passage.
William Spriggs, director of the NUL's Institute for Opportunity and Equality, said there has been a "dramatic rise in unemployment in female-headed households" and that "blacks are suffering across the board ... (with an) unemployment rate of close to 20 percent." Black males had an overall unemployment rate of 9.8 percent.
Speaking in New York, Bush said Congress needed to take care of workers and realize that the economy has not yet fully recovered.
"I believe we still need to provide stimulus for economic growth so that there's jobs," Bush said. "People need work.
"And everything Congress ought to do is to take care of those who've lost their jobs, but also recognize that people want more than an unemployment check, they want a steady paycheck."
Bush's education policy was also criticized.
Marian Wright Edelman, director of the Children's Defense Fund, said her organization had originally coined the phrase "Leave No Child Behind," which Bush now uses for his education-reform platform. The difference, she said, was Bush's funding proposal for education "actually leaves millions of children behind."
Bush's education proposal provides $1 billion for the Reading First Program, a $100 million increase over 2002. It also includes $75 million for Early Reading First, the same level as 2002. The budget proposes $387 million for the second year of states' development of annual reading and math assessments for grades 3 through 8.
It provides $2.9 billion for Teacher Quality State Grants to recruit, train and retain qualified teachers, and ensures the quality of new teachers in schools receiving Title I funds.
Edelman said without more government assistance, there wouldn't be enough funding for child-care assistance or the Head Start program, which provide the means for single mothers to look for and get jobs.
"Don't try to protect from without, what we're destroying from within," Edelman said.
The groups also said they opposed the administration's plans to retool Social Security. Bush has supported allowing U.S. workers to invest part of their retirement savings into privatized investment accounts.
That makes some opponents nervous in the wake of the Enron Corp., scandal where former top officials made millions by selling company stock while employees were locked into ownership of their plummeting shares.
Martha Burke, of the National Council of Women's Organizations, said if the administration was allowed to privatize Social Security, "we'll all get our own Enron account." She said the Social Security lock box that Bush had vowed not to touch "has sunk to the bottom of the ocean."