The Precarious Position of Anti-poverty Programs

There are a deluge of budget proposals and compromises that Congress is trying to quickly wade through as the August 2nd date for default on our federal debt draws near. On one side, House Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling without a deal to cut spending, and have rhetorically reduced budget cuts to a dichotomy of prosperity or decline. They insist on no new revenues and social-program sacrifices to get our country back on track financially. On other hand, there are a congeries of Democratic voices that suggest everything from cutting entitlement programs to agreeing to $1.2 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending. Combine the steadfastness of the House Republicans and the compromising approach of Democrats together and add a touch of debt-ceiling pressure, and the result is a frustrated public and no deal to speak of.

But aside from the big numbers being talked about, from House Speaker John Boehner's $1.8 trillion in savings from entitlement programs to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's proposed cap on discretionary spending, there is a more human element of these debates that has been lost amongst big talk of an impending debt crisis and the country we will leave future generations. Indeed, the various rounds of debates and cuts have left anti-poverty programs woefully exposed and vulnerable.

In the past, programs such as Medicare and Social Security have been protected from cuts because so many Americans rely on these benefits. But so far every proposed budget besides that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cuts these programs in one way or another. For example, when talking about Medicaid, Representative Ryan repeatedly attacks what he terms the one-size-fits-all approach of the current system, and advocates turning Medicaid into block grants that allow the states more flexibility in providing service to those who need it most. Sounds good, right? State flexibility is great, and helping those in need is, after all, the goal of the program.

But the reality of it is, converting Medicaid into block grants would shift more of the cost to states leading to restricted enrollments and benefits in times of economic downturn. According to a study conducted by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured the proposed structural changes to Medicaid would result in at least 31 million people losing coverage over the next decade. Medicaid is a program that provides health and medical services to low-income or disabled Americans. Somehow Rep. Ryan's rhetoric of making sure that “patients are [not] left with fewer options and lower-quality care” is incompatible with the consequences of his proposal. The same goes for his proposal to turn the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into block grants; it reduces the benefits available to Americans and fundamentally undermines the come-one-come-all nature of these programs.

Also troubling are the proposals to cut discretionary spending. President Obama admitted in a speech he delivered in April that cutting discretionary spending will not solve the problem – it's only a third of federal spending anyway. But that has not stopped him from suggesting around $600 billion in savings from non-security discretionary spending (things like transportation, education, foreign assistance) . And it gets worse from there – Rep. Ryan wants to reduce non-security discretionary spending to below 2008 levels, and both Rep. Boehner and Sen. Reid have proposed $1.2 trillion in discretionary savings.

Why is this bad?

Across-the-board cuts to non-security discretionary spending seriously threaten community health centers, child care, Head Start, Pell grants, and foreign aid, to name a few. Such cuts also affect many federal agencies that provide grants to our communities, for everything from highway construction to waterway maintenance to community development to crime prevention.

Let's focus for a second on international affairs, which occupies a little over one percent of the federal budget, or 3% of discretionary spending. About a third of this small fraction of spending goes towards development aid (rather than military aid). House appropriators are currently working with the numbers in Rep. Ryan's budget plan, allocating what program or agency gets how much, within each subcommittee. According to this budget blueprint, foreign aid has about half of what it had last year, which is bad news for the world's poor. (Meanwhile, military spending is relatively stable in both the President and Rep. Ryan's plans.)

According to the amfAR Foundation for AIDS Research, if the House Budget Resolution funding levels are implemented, the impact from cuts to U.S. bilateral programs could include:

  • 47,410 more infants infected with HIV

  • 551,918 orphans and vulnerable children losing their food, education, and livelihood assistance through PEPFAR

  • Funding for AIDS treatment for 654,254 people being eliminated

The human impact of potential cuts to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria could include:

  • 2.5 million fewer malaria treatments

  • 174,000 people losing their antiretroviral medications to treat AIDS

The human impact of potential cuts to Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI) could include:

  • 2.07 million fewer pentavalent vaccines available for children globally (the vaccine protects against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae type B, and hepatitis B)

In other words, all cuts are not equal, and the impact of budget cuts can be huge and disproportionate if it isn't carefully done. And with this race to a compromise (or race to cut more), there are some definite losers – like the poor, both domestic and international.

Although House Republicans appear to have formed an impenetrable block when it comes to their position on debt (evidence: All but four House Republicans and no Democrats voted for Rep. Ryan's budget resolution), protecting anti-poverty programs ultimately is not a partisan thing. The rhetoric of both parties suggests that protecting Americans is important, and yet the frenzy of ideology on one side and try-anything-ness on the other that has permeated Washington has left the cry of “don't balance the budget on the backs of the poor” out of the proposed budgets themselves.

Everyone is worried about the debt ceiling crisis causing a possible default brought on by the game of political chicken being played by the people we elected to run our country. But once it is resolved one way or another and this budget season winds down, we may see the mark of these big cuts on our communities. The federal budget is, after all, a reflection of our national priorities. And with focus fixed on spending cuts (as a catch-all term, without looking at the ramifications of this), we may very well find that, as Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund recently remarked, “there are some cuts that do not heal.”