Doing Our Bit for Defense

April 14, 2014

Having exhausted all possibilities for procrastination, I finally prepared my tax returns. Then I got a receipt from the National Priorities Project. You can too — and as I did, also get a receipt for the typical taxpayer in your state.

Here are some things I learned.

First off, District of Columbia filers paid, on average, $5,560 more than the average for taxpayers nationwide. The District’s average is, in fact, higher than the averages for all but one state — Connecticut.

This, of course, speaks to how very well the better-off households in the District are doing. How the less well-off are doing is a different story. It’s doubtful that those in the bottom 20% earned enough to owe any federal income tax this year.

But however much or little we owe, we pay the same portions for each and every item in the federal budget.

So about 27 cents of every dollar we pay goes to defense.* For the average D.C. taxpayer, this translates into $4,681, plus nearly $873 for veterans benefits, which NPP tabulates separately.

Skimming down the receipt, I see that this same taxpayer will contribute about $1,744 to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but only piddling amounts to other programs for low-income people. For example, s/he’ll chip in:

  • $42.07 for WIC  — probably about 60% of the cost of one month’s worth of the healthful foods supplement for one low-income mother or child in the District.
  • $23.36 for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program — just a few dollars more than the cost of restoring SNAP (food stamp) benefits for one of D.C. household that receives them.
  • $106.24 for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — about 25% of the current maximum cash benefit for a D.C. family of three.
  • $215.87 for Pell grants and other student financial aid.

Now, the receipt doesn’t account in detail for all income tax dollars that support programs for low-income people. SNAP and free and reduced-price schools meals, for example, are included in the Food and Agriculture category, but not broken out.

And I haven’t cited above two the receipt itemizes that benefit low-income people, as well as others, i.e., job training and employment programs and the Community Development Block Grant.

But even adding them in still leaves the average D.C. taxpayer — and me — spending nearly 10 times as much on defense. I’m sure as can be that the federal budget could “provide for the common defense” with less.

That would leave more to patch the frayed safety net and to help more people achieve economic security without it. There’d be more to meet other essential needs too, e.g., protecting public health and safety, refurbishing our neglected infrastructure, enforcing civil rights and labor laws.

Perhaps not enough more, however. I, for one, would be willing to pay higher taxes — painful as that would seem at this time of year — if a larger share went to these priorities.

Congressman Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues in the House would instead cut my taxes — or so it seems. The Center for American Progress, among others, says they’d actually rise.

Whichever, the just-passed House budget plan will clearly shift more of our tax dollars into defense  — and drastically reduce our relatively small contributions to major safety net and other non-defense programs.

Obviously not a budget reflecting my priorities — or those of most of my fellow taxpayers either, according to the polling data NPP cites.

We’ve got to do more than grumble at tax time to get a budget we like.

* The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports a considerably lower figure. This is mainly because it includes Social Security and Medicare. NPP excludes spending from dedicated revenue streams like payroll taxes.

 

 


Lessons From the Ryan Budget Plan

April 7, 2014

I feel I ought to say something about Congressman Paul Ryan’s latest budget plan. Yet, as the ferocious overview by the Center for American Progress indicates, there’ not much that’s new — not even the title.

It’s again The Path to Prosperity, which is true if you’re already prosperous. A path to more desperate circumstances if you’re poor or near-poor.

Not a path you’d like the country to go down if you care about the safety net or many other things the federal government supports, e.g., education, workplace safety, healthcare and other scientific research.

Or if you’re counting on having affordable health care in your golden years — or even next year, if your employer doesn’t provide it.

Far too much for a blog post. So here instead are a couple of ways of looking at the plan.

The Devil Isn’t Just in the Details

Congressman Ryan, as we know, has a long-standing hostility to federal safety net programs — except Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which the plan again endorses as the model for others.

So it’s no surprise that he again wants SNAP (the food stamp program) converted to a block grant that would, in some unspecified way, expand the already-existing work requirements.

The block grant clearly wouldn’t enable states to sustain current eligibility standards and benefit levels, since it would save an estimated $125 billion over 10 years. (More savings from other changes discussed below.)

It’s also no surprise that the Path would again make a block grant out of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Funding increases would be based on inflation and population growth, rather than healthcare costs and the number of people eligible.

So the federal government would save $732 billion over 10 years. And states would have the “flexibility” to cope with the loss.

Many other programs that benefit low-income people would get cut in different ways — Pell grants, for example, and Supplemental Security Income for severely disabled children. There’d be no funds at all for the Social Services Block Grant because the plan would kill it.

But here’s the devil lurking behind such details. Ryan made safety-net slashing inevitable by building his plan on certain basic principles. These are all, I hasten to add, cherished by the right-wing House majority.

First, the budget must balance within 10 years. In other words, what the federal government spends in any given year can be no greater than what it receives in tax revenues.

At the same time, the tax code can’t be changed to increase revenues. Any savings achieved by closing loopholes and the like would have to be used to offset tax cuts.

So the federal government would have to spend a great deal less — even less than seemed the case last year because the Congressional Budget Office now takes a dimmer view of prospects for economy growth and thus of revenue collections.

But — another principle here — the federal government must spend more on defense than what the Budget Control Act allows.

So what the plan giveth to defense, it must taketh away from non-defense — even more so because Ryan aims to bring total spending under the cap.

Defense would thus get $483 billion more than the sequestration levels in the BCA. Non-defense programs subject to annual appropriations would get $791 billion less.

Add cuts to the so-called mandatory programs like Medicaid and SNAP and the total non-defense loss soars to $4.8 trillion.

If At First You Don’t Succeed

This, of course, applies to the SNAP and Medicaid block grants, as well as to the fuzzily-described premium support option for Medicare — essentially, a choice of private insurance plans, with costs partially subsidized. But less over time, according to both CAP and Families USA.

As in the past, the Ryan plan would raise the Medicare eligibility age to the already-increased eligibility age for full Social Security retirement benefits.

This would leave a lot of low-income seniors in the lurch because — you knew this was coming — the plan would repeal the Affordable Care Act, including the federal funding for states that expand their Medicaid programs.

Seniors are far from the only people who’d be affected, of course. Everyone who became newly-eligible for Medicaid and everyone who’s purchased — or intends to purchase — subsidized health insurance on an exchange would be back where they were before.

At least 40 million people — one in eight Americans — would become uninsured by 2024, when the 10-year budget window closes, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ also ferocious response to the plan.

The plan would also undo compromises reflected in the new Farm Bill. For SNAP, it reverts to what the House Republicans put on the table.

Specifically, states could no longer use receipt of a TANF benefit as a basis for determining eligibility. At least 1.8 million and perhaps as many as 3 million low-income people in 40 states and the District of Columbia would lose their SNAP benefits, according to earlier estimates.

Every year, another 1 million or so would lose them because the plan resurrects another provision that didn’t survive the negotiations. This one eliminates the waivers states can get to exempt able-bodied workers without dependents from the usual work requirements when meeting them would be extraordinarily difficult.

The plan would also eliminate a provision that House Republicans got into the Farm Bill. No more so-called “heat and eat” option at all because what they hoped to achieve, i.e., SNAP benefits cuts for some 850,000 households, hasn’t altogether succeeded.

A Big So What

Well, this is the fourth Path we’ve been treated to. The last proved so problematic that House Republicans themselves couldn’t face some of the cuts required.

In any event, Congress has already passed bills setting defense and non-defense spending caps through 2021. House Republicans can’t change them. They can’t unilaterally make the far-reaching program changes either.

The plan is, however, a clear indication of Republican priorities — a “campaign manifesto,” as The New York Times calls it. Something to bear in mind as we read nervously about the upcoming Senate elections — and look beyond to 2016.

 

 


DC Budget Should Fund Help With Disability Benefits Applications

March 31, 2014

The Fair Budget Coalition recommends, among many things, a $3.9 million increase for the District of Columbia’s Interim Disability Assistance program — a temporary income supplement for low-income residents with severe disabilities.

The increase would bring local funding for IDA to somewhat over $5.9 million — a significant increase, but still less in real dollars than the program had in Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010.

It would be enough, Fair Budget says, to provide benefits — a modest $270 a month — to 1,200 more disabled residents while they wait … and wait for the Social Security Administration to render decisions on their applications for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

If they’re successful, SSA pays their benefits retroactive to the day they applied, less what they received from the IDA program. That goes to the District, making the program partly self-sustaining.

The program could probably serve more residents with less local money if a larger number could obtain SSI benefits swiftly and/or the SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits some are entitled to.

As it is, the process is complex and, more often than not, successful only after appeals — sometimes several stages thereof. This is when applicants have attorneys or other experts who know how to write, document and argue a claim.

Ms. I, for example, worked for many years cleaning offices, hospitals and nursing homes. She eventually suffered from a variety of serious ailments, plus side effects from the medications she had to take. She applied for SSI and SSDI in February 2009. Nearly two years passed before her application was approved.

But at least she got those benefits. Less than a third of SSI applications are initially approved. All but 10% ultimately are when applicants have attorneys to represent them in the appeals process, according to a pro bono attorney who spoke at an IDA briefing last fall.

But, of course, not all applicants do have attorneys. They’re hard put to gather the required proof that they’re not only income-eligible, but too disabled “to do any substantial gainful activity” for some considerable period of time.

They can easily miss one of the deadlines in the appeals process — especially, Fair Budget notes, if they’re homeless and so don’t have a mailbox to check every day.

Other applicants may also find the demands especially formidable, e.g., people unable to work because they’re developmentally disabled or suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder.

Special barriers aside, many prospectively eligible applicants decide at some point that they’ve just had enough of the time-consuming process — and the frustration.

As one who didn’t remarked at the briefing, “Either SSI is fickle or it’s set up to make people give up.” Perhaps both. Judges apply the complex regulations arbitrarily, said another of the pro bono attorneys.

A splendid example from Bread for the City, whose attorneys persuaded a judge to overturn a ruling which held that a father was demonstrably able to work because he could care for his son, with help from his family and the community.

Well, there’s nothing the District can do about the way the Social Security Administration conducts its business or the unpredictable proclivities of judges.

But they help explain why the District recovers, on average, only about 40% of the money it spends on IDA benefits — a reason Mayor Gray has taken a dim view of the program.

And they suggest that one of the items on his last wish list, i.e., funding priorities if revenues were higher than projected, should be put into the budget itself, as Fair Budget recommends.

I’m referring to funding for services to help residents apply for SSI. They’d then know, insofar as anyone can, what records they need to collect. Also, one hopes, how to describe their disabling condition(s) so as to ping the SSA checklist. They’d get help with appointments, Fair Budget suggests — and those who need it, a mailing address.

The investment should lead to more and quicker approvals, thus moving beneficiaries out of the IDA program to make way for others.

At the same time, more approvals would boost the reimbursement rate. So the District could tide over more SSI applicants without commensurate budget increases. It might, in fact, no longer have a waiting list, which undermines the whole point of interim assistance.

As things stand now, the Department of Human Services has capped IDA “customers” at 1,000 for this fiscal year. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that it will actually serve 825 — about 30% as many as it served in Fiscal Year 2009.

I need hardly add, I hope, that it would be a whole lot better for low-income residents with severe disabilities to receive SSI benefits, low as they are, than the $270 a month IDA provides. SSA might find some eligible for SSDI, which could be even better for them.

Fair Budget recommends $580,000 for SSI application assistance — about 60% of what the Mayor put on his wish list. The ask seems to me very small. But at least it would get the program started — without, one hopes, compromises in quality.

If it proves effective, as a particular model for homeless people has, then the District will have home-grown results justifying an increase.


My Blog Turns Five, Looks Back and Forward

December 9, 2013

Today is my blog’s fifth birthday — not an event that would have been part of my long-range plan, if I’d had one.

I’ll spare you the back story. Let’s just say that I got impatient with a blog administrator who left my time-sensitive posts languishing in the queue — so impatient that one day I said to myself, [expletive deleted] I’ll start my own blog.

I had no idea that it would become so important to me as a structure for learning — and an avenue to people who know a whole lot more than I do and achieve far more than I could ever hope to.

As I said last year on this auspicious date, I’m grateful for them, the discipline the blog provides and you who read what I post.

But this is all personal stuff. So let me share a broad-brush of what I think when I look at my earliest posts in light of what I’m following — and sometimes writing about — now.

My very first post took the DC Council to task for hurriedly cutting funds for affordable housing and, at the same time, rescinding a modest increase in benefits for families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Both were prompted by a projected drop in revenues — a problem state and local governments across the country were grappling with because we were sunk in the Great Recession.

No one then, I think knew how bad the recession would be — or that the labor market would remain in such bad shape for so long after it was officially over.

The District’s revenue stream has more than recovered, however. And happily, we who advocate for the interests of low-income residents no longer have to expend all our energies protesting imminent spending cuts.

Yet the source of the steady revenue increases has, in some ways, made life tougher for them because it’s due largely to an influx of high-earners. Their housing demands — and decisions to accommodate them — have driven up housing costs, especially for low-income renters.

And the District — understandably perhaps — is far readier to invest in things that will make high-earning taxpayers and business interests happy than to provide a secure, sufficient safety net and other income supports for residents who, for a variety of reasons, can’t afford basic living costs.

True, the DC Council recently put more money into affordable housing — $9.75 million more for vouchers this fiscal year. And it’s approved the Mayor’s one-time $100 million commitment to affordable housing construction and preservation. How much the latter will benefit the very lowest-income residents remains to be seen.

The Council is now considering a benefits increase for TANF families — about $16 more, in real dollars, than the one it pulled back, but still not enough to lift a families of three out of severe poverty.

In the meantime, it’s set in motion benefits cuts, leading to zero for most families who’ve been in the program for more than five years, even if the parents can’t find jobs that pay enough to sustain themselves and their children — a likely prospect for many, given what it costs “to get by” in D.C.

The District nevertheless isn’t engaged in more safety-net cutting. Not something one can say for some of the “red” states like Kansas.

Nor, like them, has it refused to expand its Medicaid program — a political decision on their parts that leaves a total of more than 4.8 million of their poorest residents without health insurance.

So on the local front, things could be better, from a poverty policy perspective, but a whole lot worse too.

Turning now to nearby Capitol Hill, I don’t know what to say that you don’t already know. But I feel I must say something to round out this selective review. So …

The economy was a whole lot worse when my blog was born, but I believe many of us had hope for positive change when President Obama was sworn in less than two months later.

And we did, in fact, soon get a package of measures to mitigate the personal hardships and other harms the recession was causing, while at the same time, kick-starting a recovery.

But there’s been a huge ground shift since then, due largely to right-wing Republican victories in the 2010 Congressional elections — and the Democrats’ defensive reactions.

No one, to my knowledge, believes we’ll see any genuine job-creating investments now — or additional investments in training and education that could improve prospects for some of the many millions of jobless workers.

Even an extension of the pared-back unemployment benefits for long-term jobless workers is reportedly iffy, though not to the point we should throw in the towel.

Another of the 2009 measures — the temporary SNAP (food stamp) benefits boost — has already prematurely bitten the dust.

And House and Senate negotiators are trying to strike a deal that would, at the very least, cut benefits further for well over half a million families — a compromise that House Majority Leader John Boehner reportedly won’t accept.

Other negotiators are trying to find common ground for a budget plan that would afford some relief from sequestration.

But no one at the table is looking to reverse earlier cuts to key affordable housing programs — let alone fund them and homeless assistance grants at levels consistent with rising costs and needs.

And the best we can hope for TANF, it seems, is another extension of the never-increased block grant, which is now worth 32% less than when the program was created.

To borrow from several blogging wits, our federal leaders are afflicted by deficit attention disorder.

And so long as that’s true, neither the District nor other state and local governments can effectively meet the diverse needs of their poor and near-poor residents, even if they want to.

Not a happy birthday thought. But I know I’m prone to gloom, as well as impatience.


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