What Would Sequestration Mean for Low-Income DC Families?

April 12, 2012

I decided to write about the across-the-board spending cuts the Budget Control Act mandates because I wanted to be sure we all had a common frame of reference when I turned to what we all, I trust, really care about.

How much less would federally-funded programs have to help low-income people?

Easy enough to answer, I thought. After all, the new report from the Coalition on Human Needs includes program-specific tables.

But I was immediately overwhelmed. The primary table lists more than 140 programs that serve what CHN classifies as basic human needs.

For each, we’ve got past and current spending levels, plus two estimates* of how much the program would lose in January 2013, when the first round of sequestration is due.

The range and extent of the losses is overwhelming. Trying to get a handle on them is overwhelming too. This is one thorough report!

So I’ll focus on a subset of the handful of programs that CHN breaks down to state-level impacts — those that best answer the question my title poses.

WIC

WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has already suffered from a series of cuts.

If Congress resists the urge to take another whack at the program, the District of Columbia would lose close to $1.5 million as its share of the 2013 automatic cut.

Less money at a time when food prices are rising. We might see a waiting list, though mothers can hardly put their children on hold till they can nourish them properly.

LIHEAP

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has also suffered from federal deficit-reduction fever.

Current funding is about $1.6 billion less than it was in Fiscal Year 2010, not counting the temporary boost LIHEAP got from the Recovery Act. The President’s budget would cut another $452 million.

But say the program got level-funded. The District would then lose somewhat over $1 million in the first round of sequestration.

Some unknown number of eligible households would be literally in the cold — some homeless, since evictions can follow unmanageable utility bills.

National survey figures suggest that about 41% of the at-risk households would be families with children.

Child Care and Development Block Grant

The Child Care and Development Block Grant has two funding streams — one so-called entitlement that’s shielded from the across-the-board cuts and one dependent on annual appropriations that isn’t.

If the Fiscal Year 2013 appropriation were the same as what the block grant is getting now, the District would lose $296,000.

May not seem like much, but the program already lacks funds to make affordable high-quality child care available, especially for low-income parents with infants and children with disabilities.

Head Start

Here in the District, as nationwide, Head Start supports a range of services for low-income children and their parents.

If Congress level-funds the program, the District would lose close to $2.8 million in Fiscal Year 2013.

So there goes more money that supports early childhood development — and gives some low-income parents an alternative to the dauntingly high costs of market-rate child care.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Title I of what’s now called No Child Left Behind funds services to help low-income students graduate “college and career ready.” It’s the single largest source of federal financial support for public school systems.

If Congress approves the same amount the program is getting now, the District would initially lose well over $4.6 million.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute tells us, Mayor Gray’s proposed budget will mean a cost crunch for at least some schools — and no extra funding for those with high student poverty rates.

The Title I cut would, of course, increase the cost-crunch — and undermine urgently-needed efforts to prepare low-income youth for the demands of our high-education/high-skills job market.

IDEA Grants

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government provides three sets of grants to help states meet their legal obligations for educating children with disabilities.

Again assuming level-funding, the District would lose more than $1.7 million from the cut in the largest grant program. Total loss would be larger, of course.

As you may know, the District’s budget has long been stressed by the costs of providing the required “free and appropriate” education to children with disabilities.

The Mayor aims to bring more of these children into the regular public school system — better for them as well as for the bottom line, if the schools get enough funding to meet the children’s needs.

The partial loss of federal grant funds would presumably require the District to invest more local dollars in special education services — more, at least, than it would otherwise have to.

I shudder to think where those dollars would come from.

* Analysts can only ballpark funding losses because the across-the-board cuts would be based on Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations. And Congress has only just started working on these.

CHN provides two sets of estimates based on current appropriations. One applies a percent estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. The other uses a higher percent estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

CBPP explains — convincingly to me — that CBO oversimplified its Fiscal Year 2013 estimates to make them consistent with out-year estimates. So I’m reporting cuts estimated with the Center’s percent.


Low-Income Energy Assistance Gets The Ax

February 14, 2011

Some of us recently get a brief taste of what it means to have your electricity shut off in the dead of winter. As the hours go by, it get cold … and colder. Also very dark.

So you bundle up, scrabble around to find a flashlight, light a fire in the fireplace if you’ve got one, maybe trek over to a friend’s house where the power is still on. Still, you know the discomfort is temporary.

But what if your electricity — or your gas, for that matter — is shut off because you’ve fallen behind in your payments? What if you’re told it will be, but you can’t come up with the cash? What if you’ve got one of those old-time furnaces and can’t afford any more heating oil?

Seems that you’ll have to … well, I don’t know what. Because both the House Appropriations Committee and the Obama administration have decided to demonstrate their deficit-reduction bona fides in part by cutting back on funding for LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program).

The Appropriations Committee’s spending cut list includes a cut in the LIHEAP Contingency Fund — $390.3 million less than what was approved for Fiscal Year 2010 and $590 million less than what the President requested for the current fiscal year.

The Contingency Fund is a pot of money that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services may release to states and other recipients, including the District of Columbia, when needs for home energy assistance rise due to a spike in prices, a natural disaster or some other “emergency,” including unusually cold weather.

Last year, HHS used the entire $590 million that had been budgeted. The Appropriation Committee’s cut would bring the appropriation down to $200 million. Virtually all of it has already been spent.

Meanwhile, the President’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget cuts the regular LIHEAP block grant by about 50%. This, says an unnamed administration official, would bring total program funding, “in real terms” to what it was during the Clinton administration. Why the booming days of the mid-1990’s should be an appropriate measure is anybody’s guess.

I can’t help wondering why LIHEAP has been targeted for any cut at all. In terms of the total $3.73 trillion budget, the savings would be miniscule. The impact on low-income households wouldn’t be.

According to the National Energy Assistance Directors’ Association, 8.3 million households benefited from LIHEAP last year, when the program was funded at $5.1 billion.

Yet only one in five eligible Americans received help from the program because the money wasn’t there for the rest — this according the National Conference of State Legislators and allies, including NEADA.

With funding at $4.1 billion — the level in the current continuing resolution — NEADA expects the average grant to cover only 42% of home heating costs and the number of households served to drop by about a million.

Another unnamed source, presumably in the administration, says that “energy prices are well below their levels … when Congress decided to increase LIHEAP funding to $5.1 billion.”

But average home heating costs are forecast to increase this year, especially in the chilly Northeast. And it’s fair to guess that the number of people in poverty is still at or near the record level the Census Bureau reported for 2009.

No reason I can see to think that energy prices will revert to pre-recession levels or that significantly fewer households will have to choose between heating and eating. No one expects the economy to start generating enough more jobs to put the majority of unemployed people back to work any time soon.

Even if it did, millions of households would still need help with their home energy bills — low-wage workers with families to support, seniors and younger severely disabled people who rely on Social Security, etc.

Matthew Cooper at the National Journal floats a couple of theories on why the President has zeroed in on a small popular program that keeps vulnerable people from freezing — or dying from extreme heat because they can’t pay to keep their air conditioners or fans running.

He’s trying to show that he’s really tough on the deficit, to reposition himself for the next election, to generate fear that will galvanize allies to fight against bigger spending cut threats.

I’ve no idea what’s motivating the President. All I can say is that we’ve got more than enough politicians telling us what tough choices they’re making when they slash spending that’s a life and death matter for the poorest Americans.

Tough on whom?


Funds For Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Fall Short Of Need

January 7, 2010

Winter has hardly begun, and we’ve already had well-below-freezing temperatures–even here in Washington, D.C. I’m sitting in my warm study, thinking about the low-income households who are struggling to pay their home energy bills–or to get along without heat because their service has been cut off.

The federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), is intended to help these households meet their immediate energy needs–both heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

The program has helped save millions of poor seniors, people with disabilities, other adults and their children from the impacts of unaffordable energy bills–hypothermia and heat prostration, hunger, homelessness, unmet medical needs and deaths and injuries caused by fallbacks like space heaters and stoves. But as with the rest of our safety net, millions fall through.

LIHEAP provides block grants to states, which they channel to local government agencies or nonprofits. It also includes an emergency contingency fund that the Secretary of Health and Human Services can tap to provide extra assistance, e.g., in cases of extreme weather, spikes in energy prices or unemployment.

Households qualify for a one-time payment of their past-due utility bills if their incomes are below a threshold defined by their state–generally either 150% of the federal poverty line or 60% of the state median income. But qualifying doesn’t mean getting because LIHEAP has never been adequately funded.

For Fiscal Year 2009, Congress appropriated a total of $5.1 million for LIHEAP–slightly more than $4.9 billion for basic grants and $590.3 million for the contingency fund. This was nearly double the funding for Fiscal Year 2008.

Yet the National Energy Assistance Directors Association reports that only 18.7% of eligible households received assistance. About 4.3 million households had their power shut off for non-payment.

For Fiscal Year 2010, President Obama proposed only $3.2 billion for LIHEAP, plus a trigger for additional funding if energy prices spiked again. Congress instead voted to fund the program at its Fiscal Year 2009 level. Surely a better choice because home heating costs are still much higher than in the recent past and, more importantly, because far more people need help.

NEADA projects a 20% increase in the number of households that will apply for assistance this fiscal year. Nothing like this number can be served with the level-funded block grants. States will need swift infusions from the contingency fund.

But they won’t be enough. NEADA estimates that the block grant appropriation could provide 7.8 million households with grants–nearly 1.8 million fewer than the projected number of applicants. If grants average $523, as NEADA expects, the contingency fund could cover only about 1.2 million.

A New York Times editorial recommends a supplemental appropriation when Congress returns. As it says, $2.5 million would cover the applicants who will otherwise be left in the cold.

That would be chump change in a budget that’s well over $3.5 trillion. But it could be a tough sell anyway. The White House and the Congress will be focused on job creation. And we’re hearing alarms about the deficit–from Democrats as well as Republicans.

I just wish our leaders could hear, as I do, the sirens screaming down the street to the low-income housing complex a couple of blocks away. Every winter, they’re a sad reminder of how we won’t put our bucks behind our best intentions.


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