The Message Behind the Messages in Ryan’s Budget Plan

March 18, 2013

This year I vowed not to pick apart Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan — the refurbished, but barely changed Path the Prosperity.

A path it certainly is. And it’s worth attending to because it shows where right-wing Republicans want to take us — if not all at once (highly improbable), then step by step. Or should I say manufactured crisis by crisis?

Specifically, as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson indicates, they view “civil society as an alternative to government.” This should set off alarm bells among nonprofit service providers and all of us who care about the work they do.

Like last year’s plan — and the plan the year before — it purports to strengthen the safety net by block granting Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program), thus giving states “flexibility” to manage increasing diminished federal funds.

Except that they’d have to time-limit SNAP participation, since that worked so well for former — and now desperately poor — families dumped out of the safety net by “welfare reform.”

Retirement would be secured by converting Medicare into a modified voucher program that would jack up the per person cost of traditional Medicare, thus building a fiscal case for killing it.

Meanwhile, seniors would have to pay increasingly more for their insurance because the premium support they’d get from the government wouldn’t keep pace with rising health care costs.

And the Affordable Care Act would be repealed, including the federal incentives for Medicaid expansion. So an estimated 40-50 million more low and moderate-income people too young for Medicare wouldn’t have any health insurance whatever.

Something (unspecified) would be done to cut Social Security spending. The plan cites misleadingly over-simple life expectancy increases. So we can infer that Ryan wants the eligibility age increased again.

Also “less generous benefits.” We know by now that this is code for pegging Social Security cost-of-living adjustments to the chained CPI, which rises more slowly than the price index used now.

But the plan itself merely directs the President and Congress to propose reform legislation — a profile in courage, as one advocate remarked.

But I said I wasn’t going to write about these things. And here I am off on a tear.

The combination of what Robert Greenstein at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calls “reverse Robin Hood policies” and the euphemisms used to describe them does that to me.

Well, the Path will die in the Senate, just like the previous plans. So the most we can say about it as a genuine budget blueprint is that it sets the stage of another partisan standoff.

What actually struck me about the plan was the introductory justification — not the lead-off hysteria about the imagined debt crisis, but the celebration of community.

The budget, Ryan says, “makes room for community — for the vast middle ground between government and the person.” People find happiness “through friendship, … in their families, their places of worship and youth groups.”

“While we belong to one country, we also belong to thousands of communities.” They encourage our personal growth. “So the duty of government is not to displace these communities, but to support them.”

Who could argue with that? Only someone, I suppose, who thought that the federal government was — or should be — the source of our personal happiness, sense of “belonging and self-fulfillment.”

The explicit message is that our communities — and our families — face many dangers, i.e., “rising health costs, a stagnant economy, massive debt, an uncertain world.”

The federal government can do something about these, but it shouldn’t play the leading role because its proper business is to “secure our individual rights and protect … [community] diversity.”

The unspoken message is that Ryan and his right-wing colleagues aim to divest the federal government of core responsibilities for the health, well-being and economic opportunities of the population as a whole.

The proposed Medicaid and SNAP block grants wouldn’t merely shift funding responsibilities to the states — by shrinking the federal cost shares over time.

They would ultimately shift feeding and tending to the medical needs of low-income people onto local communities because it’s wholly unrealistic to believe that states would — or even could — continue to absorb the costs of retaining these critical safety net programs intact.

Nor make up for deeper, as-yet-unspecified cuts to non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations, e.g., education, transportation, public safety, housing assistance.

They’d be billions larger than those the current law requires because the Ryan budget would shift all further mandated cuts in defense to those other so-called discretionary programs.

States could also lose funds for school meals, other child nutrition programs and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families because another $800 billion would be taken from programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations — in addition to those, like SNAP and the major health care programs, that the plan specifically names.

We would, in other words, return to some long ago time when faith-based and other local community organizations cared for the poor in their communities as best they could, with no government help whatever.

Many communities today have strong networks of nonprofit organizations that both supplement and serve as channels for federal spending on both safety net programs and others that meet vital human and economic needs.

But not all communities have such organizations.

And I doubt you could find a nonprofit anywhere that would say that it — and others in its network — could meet the needs of all low-income community members if the federal government backed out of its anti-poverty commitments.

In short, the budget plan presents a clear contrast between the right-wing Republican vision for our society and the vision President Obama campaigned on — that “we are greater together” and that government is a way we come together to help give life to values we commonly share.

Well, most of us anyway.


New DC Poverty and Shared Prosperity Figures Show Uneven Progress

December 3, 2012

Last week, I took a crack at the Half in Ten campaign’s updated poverty reduction and shared prosperity indicators for the nation as a whole. It’s also updated a smaller set for each state and the District of Columbia.

Here then is what we can learn from the new figures for the District.

We can look at these in a couple of ways — in comparison to last year’s or to the same indicators for the whole country. We can also see how the District ranks among states.

But the District isn’t a state. And however much it deserves to be one, comparisons to other large cities rather than to states as a whole would be more appropriate for issues like Half in Ten’s.

So let’s just look at the indicators themselves.

On the whole, we see more progress than backsliding. But — no news to any of you, I guess — the District has a long way to go on both the poverty and shared prosperity fronts.

For some indicators, the progress would be expected.

For example, the official poverty rate for the District dropped, though it was still well above the national rate. Ditto for the unemployment rate.

We see progress that can’t be attributed simply to the improving economy, however. The backsliding calls for other — or at least, more complex — explanations too.

Good Jobs

In addition to the unemployment rate, Half in Ten provides a handful of indicators for the employment prospects of relatively young District residents. Forward movement across the board:

  • The percent of freshmen who completed high school in four years increased from 56% to 62.4%* — far below the nationwide 75.5% rate, but progress nonetheless.
  • The percent of “disconnected youth” dropped by 1%, leaving us with nine out of every hundred youth who were neither working nor in school.
  • The already-high percent of young adults (25-34) with at least a two-year college degree rose to 62.7%.

Stronger Families

The good jobs indicators clearly relate to child, youth and family well-being. Unlike these, the indicators Half in Ten puts in the strengthening families category are a good news/bad news story.

In the good news part, the rate of births to teen mothers dropped from 50.9 to 45.4 per 1,000. Still considerably above the national 31.3 rate, but moving in the right direction.

And the percent of residents without health insurance dropped to 6.9% — well below the 15.7% national rate, which also registered a drop last year.

In the bad news part, the pay gap between men and women workers reportedly grew — and by a lot.** In 2010, it was considerably smaller than the nationwide gap. Last year, it was bigger.

And the rate of children in foster care rose from 18 to 20 per 1,000. Notwithstanding what I said about the rankings, I can’t resist noting that the District’s rate is far higher than any state’s.

Economic Security

Good and bad news for indicators in this category also.

On the good news side, the rate of food insecure District households dropped from 13% to 10.9%, while the nationwide rate rose.

And the percent of jobless District residents who received unemployment insurance benefits shot up from 36.3% to 64% — at least in part due to program reforms the District adopted to get its share of the reward money offered by the Recovery Act.

On the bad news side, the percent of District households without bank accounts — a measure of asset-building capacity — rose from 24.4% to 41%.

Might the marked increase have something to do with the new fees banks are charging — or their higher minimum balance requirements?

One economic security indicator that looks very positive is, I think, misleading.

We’re told that the number of rental units for very low-income households increased from 53 to 77 per hundred — almost 20 more than the nationwide rate.

How could that be when we know we’ve got an affordable housing  crisis here?

The answer lies in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of “very low-income,” i.e., at or below 50% of the median income for families in the area.

The area HUD carves out for the District includes nearby suburbs populated by very well-off folks.

A median income for the District alone would put more units out of reach — even more if Half in Ten had linked its indicator to “extremely poor households,” i.e., at or below 30% of AMI.

Half Full, Half Empty and Now What?

So we’ve got progress on more indicators than not. But we’ve still got well over 109,000 poor District residents and lots more who aren’t getting a share of that prosperity that parts of our envisioned One City enjoy.

Our local officials could move some indicators in the right direction — or further in the right direction.

But much depends on what Congress decides to do about tax revenues and spending cuts in whatever bargain emerges to pull us back from the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

________________________________________

* These figures are for the 2007-8 and 2008-9 school years. After Half in Ten published its update, the U.S. Department of Education released high school graduation rates for 2010-11. These are the first set to reflect a standardized calculation method for all states.

The District’s on-time graduation rate was 59% last year. This, at the very least, raises questions about the prior progress shown.

** The wage gap figure Half in Ten provides is significantly greater than the gap reported by the American Association of University Women. Part of the difference derives from how annual earnings are calculated, but there’s got to be some other factor too.


DC Makes Right Choices on Health Care Reform

July 19, 2012

Reading about how states are responding to the Affordable Care Act, I feel proud to live in the District of Columbia.

Only 10 states have decided to expand their Medicaid programs by the 2014 deadline. The District has charged ahead.

It’s already lifted its income eligibility ceiling to 133% of the federal poverty line, as the ACA required — until the Supreme Court in effect said it couldn’t. The District has also requested — and received — a waiver to lift the ceiling to 200% of the FPL.

This is so fiscally smart.

Under a separate program called the DC Healthcare Alliance, the District had been paying the full costs of health coverage for people with incomes below 200% of the FPL who couldn’t qualify for Medicaid.

Now it’s shifted a majority of them from the Alliance into Medicaid. The federal government pays its regular 70% share of the costs. And as of 2014, it will pay 100% of the costs for the newly-eligible at or below 133% of the FPL.

Another cause for pride is the DC Council’s decision to preserve enough funding for the Alliance so that it can still cover hospital-based services for adults who can’t be shifted — mostly undocumented immigrants, we’re told.

Consider that some states are doing their best to drive these people out — most of them among the states that won’t admit even more poor U.S. citizens into their Medicaid programs.

And since I’m beating the drum here, I’ll add that the District has moved ahead to establish an exchange for health care insurance purchases, as the ACA envisions.

Only 14 states have even established the necessary legal framework. Mayor Gray signed the District’s law in January — after what seems to have been a good bit of work by an interagency task force, including efforts to get public input.

Virtually all states have gotten grants to plan exchanges, as has the District. But 17 of them decided to stop or slow down planning until the Supreme Court ruled on the ACA. Another six hadn’t really gotten started.

Now these states are behind the eight ball. If they don’t have a “blueprint” ready by November, the federal government may decide to run an exchange for them — just the kind of “takeover” conservative ACA opponents deplore.

Rhetoric aside, the laggard states may, for various reasons, wind up with a health care system that’s less satisfactory than what they’d otherwise have.

Six states have nevertheless decided not to even try to establish exchanges. Seems we’ve got a new legal strategy for making the health reform plan crash. Or maybe two.

Some ACA opponents, including a bunch of Congressional Republicans, now claim that the ACA doesn’t allow the federal government to impose penalties on employers who won’t provide adequate, affordable health insurance except in states that operate their own exchanges.

Others argue that the federal government can’t provide subsidies to households who purchase health insurance on exchanges that state inaction constrains it to create.

So we can look forward to more brawling in Congress — and perhaps another round of lawsuits.

But, as things stand now, these attacks on the ACA won’t affect District residents because our policymakers have viewed the law as an opportunity to “ensure  … access to quality, affordable health care” for all of us.

You’d think this would be a no-brainer. It’s a testimony to our times that it’s worth a shout-out.


Supreme Court Medicaid Ruling Worst for Very Poor People

July 5, 2012

Analysts and pundits have dug into the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act, including the part that addresses Medicaid.

What we’re learning is very bad news for very poor people because millions — especially the poorest — are likely to remain uninsured.

Here’s why.

As I earlier wrote, the ruling essentially lets states retain their current Medicaid eligibility restrictions.

They’d forfeit the extra federal funding they’d get if they expanded their programs to include all residents (except some immigrants) with incomes at or below 133% of the federal poverty line.

But they wouldn’t lose the funding they get under the regular formula — 50% up to 73.4% of costs in the upcoming fiscal year.

We’ve had a lot of speculation about what state governors will do, especially those heading up the 26 states that challenged the law.

Some say it will be hard for them to turn down so much extra money, especially when their constituents see how other states are benefiting — and from their federal tax dollars too.

Governors will also be under pressure from their in-state hospitals — a powerful lobbying force, as the final shape of the ACA shows.

Others point out that some right-wing governors have already rejected extra federal money, e.g., some of the stimulus grants created by the Recovery Act.

And some of their states would incur quite large additional Medicaid costs — not initially, but as 2020 approaches and thereafter. A big reason is that, at this point, their programs exclude so many people an expansion would cover.

In Texas, for example, non-working parents qualify for Medicaid only if their incomes are below 12% of the federal poverty line. The cut-off for working parents is 26% of the FPL — just over $4,960 a year for a family of three.

Not surprisingly then, the combined caseloads for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program* would initially increase by an estimated 1.2 million if the state adopts the ACA expansion criteria.

This alone, says the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, would cost the state $2 million, increasing to $1.4 billion by 2020.

What it would get from the federal government would be exponentially larger, however — total of $52.5 billion through 2019.

Florida Governor Rick Scott claims that it would cost his state about $1.9 billion to “implement a massive entitlement expansion of the Medicaid program.”

In this case too, though he doesn’t say it, the cost in part reflects the state’s very low income eligibility cut-off — 58% of the FPL for parents.

Think Progress reports that Scott and nine other governors have said they’ll definitely not accept the expansion funding. Twenty-two are still on the fence, including 15 whose states signed on to the lawsuit.

So it seems we’ll indeed see a goodly number of states with no Medicaid expansion — at least initially. We’ll thus still have millions of people with no health insurance. And they’ll be among the poorest.

The problem, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, is the way the ACA structures tax credits to subsidize health insurance purchased on the exchanges states will establish — or the federal government establish for them.

The most generous subsidies are for people at 100% to 133% of the federal poverty line. I infer that Congress included this income bracket to extend assistance with health care coverage to documented immigrants who aren’t eligible for Medicaid.

Other people in this income bracket could purchase health insurance if their state decides not to expand its Medicaid program.

The coverage would cost them more than Medicaid would have, but the premiums would be fairly modest — at most 2% of annual income.

No subsidies, however, for people below the federal poverty line — people who can’t possible afford to buy insurance at market rates. They’re about 80% of all uninsured people who’d have become eligible for Medicaid before the Supreme Court ruled.

Congress could, of course, fix the ACA to make health insurance for these people affordable if their states won’t open Medicaid to them.

Lot of luck. Republican Congressional leaders insist that the law must, as the House Majority Leader John Boehner put it, “be ripped out by its roots” and replaced with …. Well, they’re still not saying.

This much we know. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks that coverage for the well over 30 million people uninsured now “is not the issue.”

As the New York Times explains, Republicans may have difficulty dismantling the ACA in its entirety. But this is cold comfort to the poor people whose only hope for health care is Medicaid.

* CHIP is part of the calculation because Texas had planned to shift some children out of the program and into Medicaid in 2014.

UPDATE: PolitiFact has just awarded a False rating to Governor Scott’s claim that expanding Florida’s Medicaid program would cost $1.9 billion. Estimates from the state’s health care agency, it says, indicate that costs for new patients added under the expansion would be about $500 million, but not until 2020.  At least, one advocacy organization has called the estimates “hyper-inflated.”


Health Care Reform Survives, But With Low-Income People at Risk

June 29, 2012

I don’t know about you, but I breathed a huge sign of relief when the first tweets announced that the Supreme Court had upheld the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

I’d been thoroughly convinced by arguments that the whole ACA framework would ultimately collapse if people could go without health insurance until they needed costly care and then were entitled to it — and at the same price the company charged people who needed only routine preventive care.

What’s problematic, however, is another part of the Supreme Court decision, which may limit low-income people’s access to affordable health care. Here’s why.

Under the ACA, all individuals with incomes at or below 133% of the federal poverty line were supposed to become eligible for Medicaid in 2014, when the health insurance purchasing exchanges and subsidies for not-so-low-income people also kick in.

All, that is, except undocumented immigrants and others who’ve been in the country for less than five years.

The federal government will initially pay the full costs states incur for Medicaid caseload increases due to the higher eligibility ceiling and the expansion of coverage to adults who don’t qualify now, e.g., those without disabilities or dependent children.

The extra federal support will phase down after the first three years. Beginning in 2020, states will get only 90% of coverage costs for their newly-eligible Medicaid participants.

Still a high percent, but likely to leave them with a total of about $73 billion more to pay by 2022.

Or maybe less. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, this estimate doesn’t factor in what state and local governments will save in health services for the uninsured, e.g., emergency room care.

Twenty-six states nevertheless filed a lawsuit claiming coercion because, under the law, they’d lose all federal funding for their Medicaid programs unless they expanded them as described.

This is really no different from the way a vast number of federal programs operate. If states want federal funding, they have to meet certain standards.

For safety net programs like Medicaid, this generally means that they have to provide certain types of benefits to people the federal law has targeted.

The Supreme Court majority, however, ruled that states can opt out of the Medicaid expansion without losing their regular share of Medicaid funding.

It seems reasonable to suppose that many, if not all of the 26 states will do just that.

Other states might follow, since they’ve been struggling with rising Medicaid costs — and paring back optional benefits — since the recession set in.

What’s going to happen to the millions of uninsured people who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid under their states’ existing laws, but plenty poor enough to make market-rate health insurance policies unaffordable?

To the able-bodied, childless adults, some of whom are poor as the proverbial church mouse — homeless even?

Well, maybe this is an idle worry. As economist-blogger Jared Bernstein observes, anti-poverty advocates won’t be the only ones fighting against state opt-outs. Health care providers have interests in Medicaid expansion too.

Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum thinks that some state agencies will also press for expansion since they’re “already on the hook for indigent healthcare.” Better to get those indigents into Medicaid and the federal government picking up the costs.

On the other hand, Wonkblogger Ezra Klein reminds us that the Supreme Court decision is hardly the end of the story.

Both Congressional Republicans and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney have vowed to repeal the ACA.

Say they’ll replace it, but can’t (or won’t) tell us how. Clearly, however, not with anything like an individual mandate or a mandatory expansion of Medicaid.

An across-the-board sweep in November, including a 60-vote Republican majority in the Senate, could thus put us right back where we were before the ACA.

As many as 33 million people who would have had health care coverage — including as many as 17 million through Medicaid — would still be at risk of untreated illnesses and injuries or bankrupting medical costs.

One reason that 2012 is, as an op-ed in the New England Medical Journal says, “a watershed election for health care.”


House Ways and Means Shifts Costs, Wipes Out Services Grants

May 7, 2012

I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that the House Agriculture Committee’s attack on the food stamp program was the only threat to low-income people spawned by the Republican majority’s effort to protect defense spending.

The Ways and Means Committee also had to find more savings — $53 billion over the next 10 years. And it too met its target by shifting costs to low-income people. But they’re not the only ones who’ll be harmed by what it’s come up with — far from it.

Here’s what the committee passed — and what the full Republican majority in the House almost surely will pass before week’s end.

Child Tax Credit Restriction

Ways and Means dusted off a proposal that earlier surfaced a way to offset some of the costs of extending the employee payroll tax cut and what remains of long-term unemployment insurance benefits.

Under the proposal, only parents with Social Security numbers could claim the Child Tax Credit. Immigrants who pay their income taxes using a number issued by the Internal Revenue Services would have to pay more because they’d lose the credit.

And those toward the bottom of the income scale would lose the partial reimbursement the tax credit provides.

First Focus reports that 5.5 million children would no longer benefit from the extra money their families have to spend on basic needs.

Elimination of Social Services Block Grant

Ways and Means would wipe out the Social Services Block Grant altogether. This also is a rerun, already revived in the current House budget plan.

SSBG is a relatively small program that provides states and the District of Columbia with funds they can use to meet a wide range of needs.

It’s commonly used for subsidized day care, services to protect both children and vulnerable adults from abuse and neglect, foster care and services that help seniors and people with disabilities live independently, e.g., Meals on Wheels, transportation.

Many states and the District also use SSBG funds for casework services that link people to programs that can help them.

The House Budget Committee calls the services “duplicative” because other pots of federal money fund them too.

This is misleading for two reasons. First, some states use the block grant for services that aren’t covered under other programs, e.g. protective services for elderly victims of abuse and neglect.

Second and more importantly, services aren’t duplicative just because states can draw on more than one program to fund them. Low-income parents who get child care subsidies funded by SSBG, for example, don’t also get subsidies funded by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

In other words, SSBG enables states to extend services they consider essential to more people who need them — over 22.6 million, according to the latest official figures.

Unlimited Health Care Subsidy Repayments

This is a bit technical, but it’s a big deal. So bear with me here.

Under the Affordable Care Act, people who aren’t poor enough to qualify for Medicaid can get subsidies to purchase health insurance through the exchanges, i.e., the upcoming state-level insurance markets, if they meet two conditions.

Their incomes must be at or below 400% of the federal poverty line. And they can’t get adequate, affordable health insurance through their employers.

The initial size of the subsidy is based — as it must be — on their income at the time they purchase or renew their health insurance. The lower their income, the bigger the subsidy.

What if their income rises substantially during the year? They’re unemployed at the beginning, but get a job, for example.

Under current law, they have to repay the excess they received, but only up to a fixed amount. Congress established a limit so that people wouldn’t choose to forgo health insurance because they might get stuck with a big repayment.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, Congress has twice raised the repayment cap to offset the costs of other health care legislation.

House Ways and Means would eliminate the cap altogether. The repayment some people could face would be more than five times the amount of the penalty they’d have to pay for not having health insurance.

An estimated 350,000 people — mostly the healthiest — would chose the penalty over the potential shock to their budgets later. Some, of course, would then be devastated by unexpected health care costs.

Meanwhile, people still in the insurance pool would, on average, have higher health care costs. So premiums would rise and, with them, the costs of subsidies.

The added stress on the exchanges would undermine the basic structure of the ACA — not an unintended consequence for the Republican majority. Nor is the outrage some people would feel when hit with a big repayment bill.

More support for the ACA repeal Republicans promise, if the Supreme Court doesn’t kill the law first.

Well, the House Ways and Means proposals, in their current form, won’t even get a vote in the Senate. But what we see here is that bad ideas don’t die just because they’re not enacted right away.

We should expect to see these and others resurface when House and Senate negotiators sit down to work out a way to avert the across-the-board cuts due to begin next January.

Lots of pressure. Lots of horse-trading then.

UPDATE: The House vote on these proposals, the food stamp cuts and some other nasty things I haven’t written about is now scheduled for Thursday, May 10. If you want to weigh in, the Coalition on Human Needs has an editable letter that will automatically go to your Representative.

CHN has also just posted a clever, informative video that shows what the proposals will mean in human terms. Well worth five minutes of your time.


Why I’ve Little to Say About the Ryan-Republican Budget … But Say It Anyway

March 25, 2012

I feel I ought to write something about the Ryan-Republican budget plan. I’ve been advised to call it that because it represents the platform Republicans are running on.

I’ve  read the Path to PovertyProsperity twice now. Both times got infuriated, which usually gets my blogging juices flowing.

But I’m stuck for a fresh topic. So I’ll write about that because the reasons are telling.

Proposals Replicate Last Year’s

One reason it’s hard for me to figure out what to write is that the new budget plan is in many ways the same as last years — at least for the issues I cover.

As you’ve probably read, it does take a new tack on privatizing Medicare. But the end results would be the same — costs increasingly shifted to seniors, ultimately less health care — and death of the traditional Medicare option the plan supposedly preserves.

So far as safety net programs are concerned, the two the Path gives specifics about are basically rehashes of the 2011 Path proposals.

Change Medicaid from a cost-sharing program to a block grant. Link increases in federal funding to population growth and the overall inflation rate rather than to health care costs. And let states do whatever to cope with the cost crunch.

Well, I wrote about that last year.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has updated figures, but the bottom line is still the same — many millions of low-income people without health insurance, fewer services and/or higher co-pays for those fortunate enough to still qualify.

Same deal for the food stamp program. Once again, the budget plan would convert it to a block grant, using the deeply-flawed Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a model.

There’d be new work requirements for participants — and time limits, even apparently for the nearly 30% of households that have income from work. Also apparently for those too young, too old or too disabled to work — well over half of all participants.

And again federal funding would be capped at a level far below projected costs.

But I’ve already written about this attack on the safety net too.

The only news is that the block grant would kick in one year later and cut federal spending by more — at least $133.5 billion over the first 10 years, rather than the $127 billion estimated last year.

Plan Lacks Specifics

The other reason I find it hard to write about the budget plan is that it’s egregiously short on specifics.

The food stamp program, for example, is lumped into a category called “other mandatory,” i.e., all programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations for funding, except for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and a couple of other health care programs.

Jim Horney, CBPP’s Vice President for Federal Fiscal Policy, tells us that the budget plan reflects $1.2 trillion less than projected spending for these programs under current policies.

So even if one accepts Congressman Ryan’s assumed savings in farm subsidies and the federal retirement plan, there’d still be $900 billion in savings unaccounted for.

Where would they come from? Subsidized school meals and/or other child nutrition programs? Supplemental Security Income for low-income elderly and disabled people? Unemployment insurance? TANF (again)?

All of the above?

The same question mark hangs over non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations — education and job training, housing assistance, veterans benefits, food safety, law enforcement, highways and a whole lot more.

Funding for these programs would be cut $1.2 trillion more than under the caps Congress agreed to last August. Where would the ax fall? Or rather, how close to the ground — and when?

Drastic Changes Deserve Informed Debate

Speaking of the mandatory programs, Horney concludes that “it would be a real travesty” to pass a budget like the Ryan-Republican plan “without a full and honest debate about [the cuts] and without leveling with policymakers and the public what cuts the … budget envisions.”

I think the same is true for the so-called non-defense discretionary programs. True, it’s up to the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommitees to decide exactly how to apportion the cuts.

But we ought to be told straight out how the Ryan-Republican budget would transform our country — because it surely would.

A preliminary analysis by the Congressional Budget Office indicates that, by mid-century, there’d be virtually no funding left for anything except defense, Social Security, the major mandatory health care programs and interest on the debt.

The rest of the federal government would, as arch-conservative Grover Norquist wishes, have been shrunk so small it could be drowned in a bathtub.

Surely this merits more debate than the annual budget process allows — and a full, frank accounting to base it on.

UPDATE: After I posted this, I discovered that the House Budget Committee had published a report that essentially spells out the Fiscal Year 2013 plan in greater detail. It says that block granting the food stamp program would save $122.5 billion over the first 10 years.


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