CHICAGO – With eyes as big as headlights, Tatiana Graves is the center of the world to her doting family. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving this chubby-cheeked cherub behind. But the 5-year-old is one of 16 million American children of low-wage families who will not be receiving the highly-touted child tax credit to be issued this summer. Last-minute negotiations led by Vice President Dick Cheney cut out the low-income kids in order to leave in place tax cuts on stock dividends and capital gains for the rich.

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said the bill, which Bush signed May 28, was, “in the president’s judgment … fair to all Americans.”

Tatiana’s mom, Jennifer Graves, 24, sees it another way. “He’s trying to keep people in the poorhouse,” she says bluntly. Graves is on her feet 36 hours a week at the drive-through window at McDonald’s, earning $5.35 an hour.

The complex and convoluted tax bill came under sharp attack as tax policy experts’ calculations put the lie to the president’s repeated claim that “the lowest-income workers in America … benefit the most from it.” Fifty-three percent of all households will receive no cut, or less than $100, while 184,000 of the nation’s super-rich, with incomes over $1 million annually, will rake in nearly $100,000 extra each, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The image of millions of American children being sacrificed to the raw greed of millionaires proved to be too outrageous – or perhaps just embarrassing – for even some Republicans to stomach. So a bipartisan coalition of senators led by Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) introduced a bill this week that would allow families like Tatiana’s, in the $10,500 to $26,625 income range, to join the 25 million families now slated to receive a check for $400 per child this summer. Weeks ago, Sen. Lincoln had gained Senate approval for an amendment to the tax bill assuring the inclusion of low-income families, but at a secret late-night, Republicans-only House and Senate leadership conference, the amendment was removed from the final bill.

Even if Lincoln’s measure passes and the credit is restored, other built-in injustices in the tax bill will wreak havoc on working-class and poor communities.

In Gary, Ind., public libraries have just announced a cut in hours, and a citizen’s group is scrambling to hold a fund-raiser, reports Gary Teachers Union Local 4 President Sandra Irons. “It seems like all public services are standing on a street corner with a hat,” Irons told the World.

“The worst is the cuts to our schools,” says Dorice Cusic, a 22-year food service worker in Gary’s West Side High School. Cusic works with ten other women preparing and serving breakfast and lunch to hundreds of hungry teenagers. She loves her job, “serving kids, seeing people happy with the things I fix,” but at just $18,000 a year, “it’s hard to keep the rent going.”

Sitting around the dining room table of her neatly furnished apartment with her children Alexis, 18, and Andrew, 17, Cusic decries the shortage of funds for school arts programs. Andrew looks like he could be a football player, but his passion is drawing, notes his mother proudly, and he is rarely without his sketchpad. Cusic is a savvy union activist, a member of SEIU Local 73, and doesn’t expect any benefits for families like hers from the likes of Bush. “Usually my income tax comes in February and I use it to catch up my NIPSCO (gas) bill,” she says.

Low income working families depend on tax returns, according to tax preparer Bob Balanoff, whose office on Chicago’s East Side is just a stone’s throw from the tidy bungalow where fast food worker Jennifer Graves grew up. It’s in the heart of a community devastated by decades of steel mill closings.

“Working at jobs that pay below a livable wage, they can’t afford to save money on their income,” says Balanoff of his working-class clients. “Their income tax return is the only way to get a lump sum. People plan for it all year to use for tuition, insurance and most often to get a family car.”

The latter was just what she had in mind, said Graves, speaking on her break in the McDonald’s parking lot. She’s holding out hope for the tax credit. Citing her husband Arley’s horrendous daily commute by bus and train two hours each way to his $8.50-an-hour telemarketing job in the far-west suburb of Des Plaines, she stated matter-of-factly, “We could put it toward a little car.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is refusing to consider new legislation expanding the child tax credit unless it is attached to further tax cuts for the super-rich. Annoyed by charges that the tax bill was unfair to children of low-income families, DeLay told a news conference, “There are a lot of things that are more important than that.”

Roberta Wood can be reached at rwood@pww.org

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