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.

 

 


Nonprofits Part of the Hunger Solution, But No Substitute for SNAP

September 26, 2013

We’re coming to the end of Hunger Action Month, initiated by Feeding America to build support for ending hunger in our country.

House Republicans celebrated, as I’m sure you know, by voting to deny SNAP (food stamp) benefits to about 3.8 million low-income people.

A few days later and a couple of miles away, the National Cathedral held a hunger forum for its congregants and anyone else who chose to attend or, as I did, watch the live stream on their computer.

One of the speakers, George Jones, spoke briefly about the experience of Bread for the City, where he’s CEO. More people are coming to the organization’s two food pantries, he said. They’re now serving about 5,000 households a month.

We also heard from representatives of smaller, faith-based feeding programs. In the Street Church project, for example, volunteers prepare and serve sandwiches in a downtown park where homeless people gather.

Volunteers in the National Cathedral’s community also prepare sandwiches — these at home — and drop them off, along with fresh fruit for delivery to a mobile soup kitchen operated by Martha’s Table, which also provides bags of groceries to people who’d otherwise go hunger.

Now, we need these projects — and the many others here in the District and in communities nationwide. We would need them even if SNAP benefits were safe, which they aren’t, despite the likelihood that the Senate will reject the harsh, sweeping House cuts.

As I’ve often (too often?) said, SNAP benefits are already too low to cover the monthly costs of reasonably healthful, balanced meals — or in some cases, any meals at all.

We need also to consider that far from everyone eligible for SNAP participates — about one in four, according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Lots of reasons for this, as a FRAC research review indicates. Among them is the very low benefit for a single person — currently no more than about $2.19 per meal. Not worth the hassle, some figure — or the stigma, all too often reinforced by checkers and other customers at the grocery store.

For seniors living alone, as most who received SNAP did, the average benefit in 2011 was even lower — $122 a month or roughly $1.34 per meal. This, as I’ve previously noted, helps explain why a Feeding America survey found that a third of all regular pantry clients were 60 or over.

Consider too that not all low-income people in this country are eligible for SNAP. The same law that ended welfare as we knew it established a five-year waiting period for virtually all adult immigrants who came here through proper legal channels.

No benefits ever, of course, for immigrants without the proper papers, though they and their children have the same needs for food as us born-in-America folks.

Resources aren’t the only issue. Access to full-service grocery stores is also often a problem for low-income people — a combination of distance and the need to rely on public transportation.

There are only two supermarkets in the District’s poorest east-of-the-river area served by one of Bread for the City’s pantries, Jones noted.

Put all these problems together with persistently high unemployment rates — recently 14.9% and 22.4% in the District’s two poorest wards.

Add both under-employment and jobs that don’t pay enough to live on and it’s understandable why nearly one in three District households with children didn’t always have enough money for food, according to FRAC’s latest food hardship report.

So it’s heartening that so many nonprofits step into the breach with free meals and/or food to take home. And heartening to know that so many individuals contribute the funds and voluntary services they depend on.

But, as Jones said of his organization’s pantries, they’re “designed to augment food stamps.”

This is a far cry from Congressman Paul Ryan’s claim that the radical cuts he put into the House budget plan — including $135 billion to SNAP — are needed because “the federal government is encroaching on the institutions of civil society … sapping their energy and assuming their role.”

Feeding America reports that the House SNAP cuts, plus the imminent benefits cut for everyone still eligible would result in the loss of about 3.4 billion meals for low-income people in 2014 alone.

This is more than all the meals that its network of food banks distributed through pantries and soup kitchens in the current year.

Here in the District, the Capital Area Food Bank is part of that network. About 250 nonprofits here rely at least in part on the fresh produce and others foods it distributes.

They include Bread for the City, Martha’s Table and others well known in our local community, as well as many that aren’t — except, of course, to the people they feed and the people who make that possible.

So it’s hardly the case that federal safety net programs like SNAP have sapped the energy our civil society institutions — here or nationwide.

It’s rather that they can’t serve as the hunger safety net for the millions of low-income children, seniors, people with disabilities, workers and those who’d work if a job were available who now rely on SNAP to keep food on the table — at least most of the time.

And they’re the first to say that.


Congressman Ryan Renews War on the War on Poverty

August 7, 2013

Congressman Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, held a hearing last week supposedly to get a “progress report” on the War on Poverty.

A highly suspect enterprise, since Ryan had already proclaimed the War on Poverty a failure — most recently less than a week before the hearing.

“When I look at the money spent, when I look at the programs created, when I look at the miserable outcomes and the high poverty rates, … [I say] ‘We can do better than this.”

Interestingly, however, most of the witnesses he’d called didn’t engage in wholesale trashing on our anti-poverty programs, though Jon Baron, who heads the Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy, came pretty close.

Ryan’s Republican committee colleagues pulled out all the stops. References to “perpetual dependency,” confiscating taxpayers’ money, a remarkable attack on the Catholic church for calling on the government to help serve the poor.

Democrats countered with some myth-busting — mainly the notion that poor people don’t want to work. They also repeatedly noted that large majorities of safety net beneficiaries either are working or aren’t expected to — because they’re children, elderly and/or severely disabled.

And they took the occasion to point out the irony of a hearing on poverty when the House has already passed a budget (Ryan’s creation) that guts several major safety net programs and sets a spending level that will force severe cuts to others.

In the midst of all the bickering and posturing, some genuine issues emerged. To me, the biggest of all was what we should expect anti-poverty programs to do — and how we can know whether they’re doing it.

For Ryan, the programs have “miserable outcomes” because about 46 million people fell below the official poverty threshold last year.

Congressman Van Hollen, the committee’s highest-ranking Democrat, and Sister Simone Campbell, best known as the leader of the Nuns on the Bus, countered with top-line figures from the Supplemental Poverty Measure.

As I’ve written before, the SPM factors in major non-cash benefits, e.g., SNAP (the food stamp program), plus money received from the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and partially refundable Child Tax Credit.

These benefits reduce the SPM poverty rates — or, as is commonly said, lift people out of poverty. Some examples from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which foresightfully launched a preemptive strike on Ryan’s messaging.

Not good enough for Congressman Sean Duffy. We need to “get to the root cause of poverty, not just address pain.”

Nor for Ryan. “We focus on how much money the government spends.” True in his case for sure. “We should focus on how many people get off public assistance — because they have a good job.”

Or more tellingly in the TV clip I linked to above. “Our goal is not to make poverty easier to handle … and live with. Our goal in these programs ought to be to give people a temporary hand so that they can get out of poverty.”

And so Ryan chose to put Eloise Anderson, head of his home state’s Department of Children and Families, on the panel — the Republicans’ “star witness,” Greg Kaufmann at The Nation smartly observes.

The state’s welfare program got 93% of families off the rolls, she said. What we need in other programs are work requirements and time limits like those in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

No one, I think, would argue against programs that help people who can work prepare for and find jobs that will enable them to support themselves and their families. (Whether that’s a good description of TANF is another matter.)

But time-limiting all our safety net programs will surely leave some people in destitution — rather like the conditions former reporter Dan Morgan recalls from the early 1960s.

And is getting people off the rolls and over the official poverty line the only result we should measure?

What then do we do about people who are too old or too disabled to work — or working and still unable to make a go of it without public assistance?

About children, whose health, well-being and future prospects are significantly improved when they’ve got enough to eat, good medical care, a safe, stable place to live and positive learning experiences from an early age?

I’d be the last person to say that our anti-poverty programs are all they ought to be. But the only result Ryan and compeers seem willing to credit is far too narrow.

I personally think that a group so eager to claim their Christian bona fides would hesitate to dismiss programs that feed the hungry and heal the sick — services that local charitable organizations can’t do alone.

See, for example, the Bread for the World figure Sister Simone cited to show this — a $50,000 per year additional burden on every single congregation in the country merely to compensate for the SNAP cuts in Ryan’s budget.

And it’s genuinely offensive to hear Ryan claim that his attacks on anti-poverty programs aren’t “about cutting spending.”

If he really wanted to “start a conversation” about how we could better approach the multifarious problems that underlie our high poverty rate, then why has he plunged ahead with budgets that embody his radically right-wing conclusions?


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