What is so great about our bloated federal government that when a libertarian threatens to become a senator, otherwise rational and mostly liberal pundits start frothing at the mouth? What Rand Paul thinks about the Civil Rights Act, passed 46 years ago, hardly seems the most pressing issue of social justice before us. It’s a done deal that he clearly accepts.

Yet Paul’s questioning the wisdom of a banking bailout that rewards those who shamelessly exploited the poor and vulnerable, many of them racial minorities, is right on target. So too questioning the enormous cost of wars that as he dared point out are conducted in violation of our Constitution and that, I would add, though he doesn’t, prevent us from adequately funding needed social programs.

Under the leadership of President Bill Clinton, Wall Street secured the radical deregulation of the financial industry that its lobbyists had long sought. I opposed that betrayal of the sensible policies of the last great Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and I suspect that Paul applauded the move as an extension of the free market that he so uncritically celebrates.

Where I agree with him is that with freedom comes responsibility, and when the financial conglomerates abused their freedom, they, and not the victims they swindled, should have borne the consequences. Instead, they were saved by the taxpayers from their near-death experience, reaping enormous profits and bonuses while the fundamentals of the world economy they almost destroyed remain rotten, as attested by the high rates of housing foreclosures and unemployment and the tens of millions of newly poor dependent on government food handouts.

But the poor will not find much more than food crumbs from a federal government that, thanks to another one of Clinton’s “reforms,” ended the federal obligation to deal with the welfare of the impoverished. Yes, Clinton, not either Paul, father Ron or son. It was Clinton who campaigned to “end welfare as we know it,” and as a result the federal obligation to end poverty, once fervently embraced by even Richard Nixon, was abandoned.

Concern for the poor was devolved to the state governments, and they in turn are in no mood to honor the injunction of all of the world’s great religions that we be judged by how we treat the least among us. That would be poor children, and it is unconscionable that state governments across the nation are cutting programs as elemental as the child care required when you force single mothers to work.

“Cuts to Child Care Subsidy Thwart More Job Seekers” ran the headline in The New York Times on Sunday over a story detailing how in a dozen states there are now sharp cuts in child care for the poor who find jobs, and how there are now long lists of kids needing child care while their mothers work at low-paying jobs at places like Wal-Mart. In Arizona, there is a waiting list of 11,000 kids eligible for child care. That is what passes for success in the welfare reform saga, with mothers forced off the rolls into a workplace bereft of promised child care that the cash-strapped states no longer wish to supply.

A couple of weeks ago came the news — reading like a page out of Dickens (or perhaps like a parody from The Onion ) — that the Terminator was again in action, this time terminating California’s programs for the poor. The son-in-law of Sargent Shriver, who once ran the federal war on poverty, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger now seeks to eliminate the Golden State’s CalWorks program. By ending the once celebrated program along with child care funding, Schwarzenegger expects to save $2.2 billion. As the Los Angeles Times reported, “Ending CalWorks, which provides recipient families with an average of $500 per month, would make California the only state not to offer a welfare program for low-income families with children.”

Schwarzenegger apparently doesn’t care; poor kids can’t complain too loudly, and while the governor backed down in his earlier threats to cut funding for somewhat more privileged college kids who protested those cuts loudly, he found the safety net for the poor an easier target: “You cannot have a safety net if you don’t have the money for that safety net.”

Sure you can’t, and so the safety net is being shredded in state after state, but why don’t we have the money, and why was responsibility for the poor left to the tender mercy of state governments while the federal government maintains a lavish welfare system for needy bankers who treat a few billion in government bailouts as chump change?

I am not a libertarian; I proudly remain a bleeding-heart liberal, as befits one who began life in a family on the dole during the Depression. But if the federal government exists primarily to serve super-rich defense contractors and bankers while ignoring the poor, I say it is time to expose as the enemy of progress the Washington bureaucracy that tends to the greedy rich at the expense of the truly needy. That is the problem; Rand Paul is the distraction.

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