No Text Messaging Service, More and Longer Waits for Help From Social Security

August 15, 2016

I used to say that I was the only person in the developed world over the age of three who didn’t have a cell phone. Then my brother Tom told me he didn’t have one either. Now it seems that having not only a cell phone, but one that’s text-enabled isn’t just a handy alternative to email.

The Social Security Administration has just informed me that I can’t use my online account unless it can send me a text message whenever I try–and I text back. So I’m doomed again to hours on hold — and probably hours sitting in the local SSA office, as I had to do when some glitch in the system blocked my online account.

I could, of course, join the 21st century. But not all elderly and younger people with disabilities can afford a cell phone and the related fees, let alone the surcharges for texting.

The federal government offers low-income residents free cell phones and some variable number of free minutes. All but eight states restrict eligibility for this so-called Lifeline to people whose incomes don’t exceed $15,890 — this for people who live alone, as I do.

The cut-off is barely more than the average Social Security retirement benefit before the deduction for Medicare Part B, which most prudent retirees choose. And it’s less than 150% of the federal poverty line for a single person — a measure some analysts use to define low income.

Even income-eligible people may not have cell phones. One reason, I think, is that they have to choose between a cell phone and a landline. Some feel they can’t do without the latter — easier for people with poor vision to punch buttons for outgoing calls and see who’s calling them, for example.

Others might willingly forgo the landline, but live with someone who depends on it. The Lifeline choice isn’t personal, but for everyone in the household.

Texting poses other challenges. I think of my mother-in-law, who’s about to turn ninety-seven. Her right hand, never fully functional since a stroke some years ago, couldn’t readily peck out a message on a little keyboard.

SSA says it’s imposing the text messaging requirement as part of a government-wide effort to tighten up cybersecurity. I can see how a hacker could do mischief by accessing my account.

But the agency delivered the text messaging requirement as an edict, giving no one a chance to raise concerns or suggest alternatives. The executive order it refers to seems open to the latter.

Congress may make matters worse — not only for text-less seniors, but their younger counterparts who’ve either become too disabled to continue working or never could.

The House Appropriations Committee has reportedly decided to cut SSA’s budget by $250 million, though the agency has already lost roughly 10% in real dollars since the across-the-board spending cuts and caps required by the Budget Control Act.

A cut over on the Senate side too, the Washington Post reports in a column focusing on what unnamed agency officials say the House cut will mean for people applying for benefits, waiting for decisions and simply needing some personal help from a staff member.

Now there will surely be more of the last, thanks to the texting screen. Waiting for hours in an office isn’t nearly as bad as waiting for months to receive the benefits you need when your spouse dies — or for nearly a year and a half, on average, when you’ve appealed the agency’s rejection of your initial disability claim.

But my ample opportunities to observe others sitting in the office I go to suggest those long waits may do more than provoke acute impatience — something I’m more prone to than I should be.

I saw, for example, people with disabilities who had to have relatives with them to help with the applications process — or the interactions needed to resolve problems.

Not only they, but some other former workers, including seniors had somebody there to take them home — presumably the same person who brought them there. So they might have had to do without the benefits they needed for weeks (or months) longer because no one could immediately take enough time off from work.

Fulminating over SSA services last year, I cited a Los Angeles Times columnist who suggested that Republicans want to get us so riled up that we’ll accept some private-sector alternative. The head of the union that represents many agency employees says that’s why House Republicans voted for the latest budget cut.

I’m pretty riled up, as you can see, though not nearly that riled up. I do, however, feel that SSA has further disadvantaged people who’ve already got disadvantages not freely chosen, unlike my stubborn resistance to a smartphone.

UPDATE I: Minutes before I published this, I got a message from my bank, saying that it had instituted a multi-factor authentication process  — the technical term for what SSA has adopted. It does not require use of text messaging.

UPDATE II: My gripe abut text messaging is moot, as my next post reports. My concerns about long waits aren’t.


Not Enough Money for Low-Income DC Residents, But Tax Cut for Wealthy Unchanged

May 26, 2016

As you local readers probably know, the DC Council passed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year last week. Some changes in what the Mayor had proposed for programs that serve low-income residents.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s overview of the budget confirms what I’d expected. Mostly, a bit more here, a bit more there. No more for some critical priorities. And less for at least one. (The one large, new investment it cites — for new family shelters — isn’t part of the budget proper.)

I suppose we’ll be told that the Council did its best with what it had to work with. I don’t know because I don’t know nearly enough about the funding needs and prospective impacts of every program and service the budget covers.

But I do know that the Council could have had more revenues to work with. It had only to postpone — or better yet, repeal — the tax cuts prior legislation has made automatic whenever revenues rise above the estimate used for the latest budget.

The triggers have already reduced otherwise available revenues by many millions of dollars — dollars the Council could have used to shore up under-funded programs.

So much water under the bridge. And as the Chairman, who likes those triggers says, the revenues lost from cuts not yet triggered couldn’t have been used for the new budget. But the Council could have had them to spend as early as next fiscal year — and thereafter.

All tax cuts are not created equal, of course. Some on the pending list will benefit residents who’ve got enough income to owe taxes, but not a lot.

The second cut on that list, however, is a higher threshold for the estate tax. The most recent revenue forecast indicates that it will lock in soon, DCFPI’s latest account of the trigger impacts says.

So henceforth, no assets a deceased resident leaves to heirs will be taxable until they’re worth $2 million — twice the current minimum.

As things stand now, this will be the first of two estate tax cuts. The second — and considerably larger — will raise the threshold to the same minimum as applies to the federal estate tax, currently $5.45 million.

Why the District should embrace a regressive measure gained in a crisis by Congressional Republicans who could never be elected here baffles me.

True, the Tax Revision Commission recommended parity with the federal threshold, including the ongoing upward adjustments for inflation. But the Council could have taken a pass, just as it has on the revenue-raisers in the Commission’s package.

The District will forfeit $18.8 million next fiscal year alone, according to DCFPI’s estimate. And for what?

Not so that more money can pass to charities tax free. Bequests to them are already exempt. Not so that surviving spouses will have more to live on, since what passes directly to them will also still reduce the value of what counts toward the threshold.

Not even necessarily what other heirs wind up with, since a will-maker can give them as much as $14,000* each or the equivalent every year while still alive — again reducing the value of what’s potentially taxable afterwards.

The estate tax giveaway won’t just make larger investments in programs that reduce hardships for poor and near-poor residents unnecessarily difficult. It will increase income inequality in the District by giving the rich more, as well as denying the poor supports and services that help close the income gap from the bottom.

And the gap will grow from one generation to the next in part because of the way the taxable value of assets is determined. Essentially, it’s set at their value when the person bequeathing them dies.

So heirs pay capital gains taxes when they sell the assets for more, but no tax on how much the assets’ value increased between the time they were purchased and the time inherited.

And, of course, heirs don’t have to sell them. They can pass them along to their heirs, compounding the revenue loss — and wealth at the top of the income scale.

The estate tax then is a way of partly recouping the loss and, at the same time, averting a rollback to the inordinate wealth concentration of the Robber Baron days.

The higher the threshold, the less an already-shaky control on income inequality can do. And the gap between the richest and poorest District households is already very large — larger, indeed, than the DCFPI analysis I’m linking to shows because it doesn’t drill down to the top 1%.

Their incomes averaged well over $1.9 million in 2012, the latest year I’ve found figures for. This, recall, is income for a single year, not also what could readily be converted to income.

Now, no one — not even Bernie Sanders — is talking about taking so much from the rich and giving it to the rest that incomes would be equal. Nor is anyone talking about taking all the wealth the rich have accumulated when they die.

The major focus — and DCFPI’s recommendations reflect it — is reducing the gap by lifting incomes at the bottom and making those incomes more sufficient for basic needs, e.g., by ramping up investments in housing they can afford.

Not all income-lifting measures would require the District to spend more public funds. But some surely will, including workforce development and (you knew I was going to go here) reforms in the rigid Temporary Assistance for Needy Families time limit policy.

Leaving the estate tax threshold where it is won’t give the District as much more tax revenue as it needs. But the giveaway isn’t chump change either.

And it’s got nothing going for it, except a hugely successful and duplicitous PR campaign. Surely Councilmembers know better. And I’d like to think their donors not only know better, but want better for our community.

* This is the current threshold for the federal gift tax, which will rise over time to keep pace with inflation. The District has no gift tax.


Why So Many People at Risk of Hunger in DC and Nationwide?

May 19, 2016

We may all be Washington, D.C., as the Mayor’s slogan implies, but we’re not all sufficiently fed. In fact, 90,900 (13.8%) of us don’t always have enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle because we can’t afford it, according to Feeding America’s latest Map the Meal Gap report.*

The “us” here includes 29,820 children (nearly 26%) of those living in the District in 2014, the most recent year Feeding America could get data for. They’re not necessarily underfed, but they live in food insecure households and so are, at the very least, at risk of hunger.

Troublesome as these figures are, they’re better than those for the prior two years — especially 2013, when the food insecurity rate for all District residents was 15% and, for children, 30.5%.

On the other hand, the child food insecurity rate is 5% higher than the national rate, though the overall rate is slightly lower.

What can we tease out to explain such relatively high food insecurity rates in the District? First off — and this is true everywhere — families with children are more likely to be hard up for food money than families without them.

They’re still short, even with SNAP (food stamp) benefits and other federally-funded nutrition assistance, e.g., WIC, free or reduced-price school meals. Or so it seems.

Here in the District, nearly three-quarters of food insecure residents have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line — the threshold Feeding America uses because the District has taken advantage of an option that allows residents with incomes this high to have their eligibility for SNAP considered.

Doesn’t mean they’ll all qualify. Their income, after deductions must still be no greater than 100% of the FPL But broad-based categorical eligibility, as the option is called, does seem to make a difference.

For children, Feeding America uses 185% of the FPL — the maximum income for WIC and reduced-price school meals. By this measure, somewhat over two-thirds of food insecure children qualify for nutrition assistance.

The flip side of these figures, of course, is that a quite high percent of food insecure District residents, including children have household incomes too high for any federally-funded nutrition assistance.

Both those aided and those not face a problem that the Feeding America report is really about — what it calls the meal gap, i.e., the difference between the per-meal cost of food and what individuals and families can afford.

It does some complex number-crunching to arrive at the gap — or more precisely, gaps. The end result for the nation as a whole is $2.89.

The meal gap in the District is notably higher — $3.49 per meal or more than $73 a week, assuming three meals a day, every day, as Feeding America does. This surely goes a long way toward explaining the high food insecurity rates.

On the one hand, as I’ve said, many food insecure District residents have incomes to high to qualify for SNAP, which would supplement their own budgets.

The city is also home to residents who’ve got incomes well below the threshold, but don’t qualify because they’re undocumented immigrants — or documented, but haven’t lived in the country long enough.

On the other hand, those who do qualify won’t have enough to cover the costs of reasonably healthful meals all month long. A parent with two children, for example, can get at most $511 a month — or about $1.87 per meal for each family member.

Closing the local meal gap would have cost roughly $56 million two years ago — and more than $24.5 billion nationwide. That’s a lot of money. Which tells us why Feeding America maps the gap.

The organization, as you may know, supplies food to a national network of food banks. Some of the food comes from federal agencies, it says. The rest — and far greater portion — comes from private-sector sources, e.g., food processors, grocery chains and monetary donations it uses to buy food.

The banks, in turn, channel the food to nonprofits that serve prepared meals and/or distribute groceries to poor and near-poor people in the area they serve. They too may get food from private-sector sources and buy more, using cash or cash-equivalent donations.

And they may get some from the Emergency Food Assistance Program — a variable mix that the U.S. Department of Agriculture parcels out to state agencies and they, in turn, to the banks and/or community action agencies.

Here in the District, 132 pantries, dining rooms, other programs that serve meals and/or snacks and the DC Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for some of them, depend in part on what they receive from the Capital Area Food Bank.

Narrowing the meal gap will obviously require more food — and more money to not only buy it, but distribute, store, prepare and deliver it.

We surely can’t look to this Congress, though we can hope it doesn’t widen the gap. That’s what House Republicans would do if they succeeded in converting SNAP to a block grant, as their budget plans have repeatedly envisioned.

It’s what their latest plan would probably do, even without the block grant, because it puts a tighter squeeze on non-defense programs that depend on annual spending choices. This already-shrunken part of the budget includes WIC, parts of TEFAP and several sources of funds for free or low-cost home-delivered meals.

Highly doubtful we’ll see the cuts this year. But it’s obvious that the meal gap will remain — and probably grow, as it already has — without more public funds to shrink it.

* The food insecurity rates Feeding America reports for states and the District are slightly higher than those USDA reported. This apparently is because the agency uses two-year averages to compensate for the relatively small size of its survey sample.


Block-Granters Condemn Social Services Block Grant Because It’s a Block Grant

April 14, 2016

The Social Services Block Grant is a case study in the perils of block-granting — and imperiled again by House Republicans for the same reasons they give for replicating its key features.

SSBG has provided states and the District of Columbia with predetermined portions of the total block grant since 1981, when it replaced a multi-purpose program that ensured them as much funding as the services they provided cost.

In exchange, they got a lot of flexibility. Basically, they could use SSBG funds for, as its name suggests, virtually any mix of social services so long as they met at least one of five general goals.

States must report, in a general way, how they plan to allocate their funds and, at the end of the year, how they actually have. That’s about it, except when committees or subcommittees in Congress decide to find out more — or to prove they can’t.

Funding for the block grant doesn’t altogether depend on choices Congress makes from year to year. It’s one of the so-called mandatory programs. But unlike some others, e.g., Medicaid, SNAP (the food stamp program), its funding doesn’t hinge on how much states need to cover benefits for everyone enrolled.

Congress instead appropriates funding up to a cap set by the law that authorizes spending on the program. The cap has remained $1.7 billion since 2001. The total SSBG gets is then parceled out according to a formula based on the relative size of each state’s population.

The real-dollar value of the total pie has dropped somewhat since 2010, the year before Congress passed the law requiring sequestration. Pieces of the pie have shrunk accordingly.

The block grant’s losses don’t stem entirely from sequestration, however, but rather from the fact that it’s a block grant.

On the one hand, it’s so very flexible that Congress felt free to tap it when it needed funds for something else — hence the current cap, which is less than two-thirds of what it got before the first tap.

On the other hand, Congress has made no adjustment to accommodate inflation, though that inevitably drives up service costs. Nor has it adjusted for population growth.

All these together have caused the block grant to lose a whopping 81% of its real-dollar value since created.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, my source for the figure, focuses on the block grant aspect. The marked flexibility in SSBG seems equally important, especially in light of recent threats.

States and the District have used their block grant funds for many purposes. They’ve melded those funds with others — from their share of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, more targeted federal grants and their own tax revenues.

We see, for example, that states tend to use a relatively large portion of their block grant funds for child care. They’ve got another block grant specifically for that, as well as TANF.

They use SSBG funds for child welfare services — prevention of abuse and neglect, interventions and foster care, when those won’t suffice. But the block grant isn’t the sole funding source.

Nor are children its only beneficiaries. Many states use some SSBG funds to protect vulnerable adults from abuse and neglect and to provide day care and/or home-delivered meals for seniors.

They may also get more targeted federal grants for these. And they may, as I mentioned, add some of their own funds.

The District, for one, has used SSBG funds to shore up its stressed homeless services program — here again, a melding with both a targeted federal grant and its own tax revenues.

In short, states and the District have taken advantage of the flexibility the block grant offers. And they’ve done so in ways that would make it extraordinarily difficult to show how the block grant funds, in and of themselves, made practical differences in the lives of people served.

Lead House Republicans have pounced on the flexibility we see here. They include now-Speaker Paul Ryan, who, as you may recall, would roll as many as eleven safety net programs into a single block grant.

His budget plans would have zeroed out SSBG and replaced it with nothing. The current House Budget Committee majority has used his plans as a blueprint for their own, including the latest. It too would eliminate the block grant — and for the same alleged reasons the Committee’s past reports cited.

A “duplicative” program, since other federal programs fund most of the same activities. The “wide discretion” states have in deciding how to spend the money. No evidence of effectiveness, i.e., outcomes achieved solely by their block grant spending.

And again, those programs that SSBG purportedly duplicates would get no funding to compensate states for the loss of their block grant shares. The Committee majority books the loss to them as savings — $17 billion over the usual 10-year window.

The loss would, of course, be ultimately borne by beneficiaries — “vulnerable kids and … adults,” as the Democratic minority says. The Republicans, it adds, have confirmed long-standing worries that block-granting sets programs up for a death sentence.

Well, as I’ve said before, the House budget plan won’t become the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. But it does show how block-granting programs makes them exceedingly vulnerable — if not to sudden death, then slow starvation.

And if it doesn’t show how hypocritical the calls for yet more state flexibility are, then I don’t know what can.

 


Bowser Budget Shorts Vouchers, Leaves Huge Affordable Housing Gap

April 7, 2016

The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the District of Columbia has only 40 apartments affordable and available to rent for every 100 extremely low-income households and only 30 per 100 for the deeply low-income.

ELIs have incomes no greater than 30% of the area median — at most, $32,600 for a four-person family in D.C. For DLIs, the maximum is 15% of that median.

The NLIHC figures actually understate the affordable housing shortage here because the area includes well-off communities beyond the city line. Several years ago, the District’s own median was 23% lower.

Even so, clearly a yawning “housing gap” — a shortage of more than 30,600 units two years ago, when the Census Bureau conducted the survey NLIHC used.

It helps explain why nearly two-thirds of the District’s ELI households and nearly three-quarters of the DLI subset had to spend more than half their income for rent, plus utilities — commonly (and aptly) referred to as a severe housing burden.

The gap also, of course, helps explain why the District had so many homeless individuals and families — and still does, though we’ll have to wait a bit for new hard numbers.

The report confirms what everyone has known for a long time. The District sorely needs more housing that’s affordable for its lowest-income residents. And the District government must invest local tax dollars to create it — and preserve what remains.

The Mayor’s budget includes another $100 million for the Housing Production Trust Fund, which helps finance both construction and preservation, though not exclusively for ELIs and DLIs.

But developers can’t afford to build or renovate housing for them without an ongoing source of funds to help pay operating costs. That’s why the District also needs enough housing vouchers of the sort that’s attached to specific units — so-called project-based vouchers.

At the same time, it needs more tenant-based vouchers — those that make up the difference between what low-income people can afford and the market-rate rent of units landlords will lease to them.

Don’t look to the federal government to fund more vouchers. The current budget at best barely sustains those already in use. And the District hasn’t gotten anything like the number of vouchers it needs for many years.

That’s why its policymakers created the Local Rent Supplement Program — a source of vouchers modeled on the federal.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has raised concerns about proposed funding for LRSP in next year’s budget. There’d be only enough more to provide affordable housing for some 200 formerly homeless individuals and families, it says.

These would be tenant-based vouchers. They would replace some of the short-term vouchers individuals and families have through rapid re-housing and/or enable either or both to move from permanent supportive housing because they no longer need such intensive services.

The Mayor proposes no additional funds for the project-based type. How then could the Production Trust Fund actually produce more affordable housing for ELI residents — let alone the subcategory NLIHC has created?

The Fund, by law, is supposed to spend 40% on ELI housing every year. It hasn’t always in the past. But the head of the Housing and Economic Development Department said she’d ensure it did. And the latest awards seem to confirm that.

But developers may not respond to all the new opportunities the Fund will create if the Bowser administration can’t assure them of the ongoing subsidies project-based vouchers provide.

This isn’t the only problem with the significantly smaller LRSP increase the Mayor proposes. If all the tenant-based vouchers go to residents in rapid re-housing and/or PSH, there’ll be none for the ELIs and DLIs with housing burdens that put them at high risk of homelessness.

NPR recently profiled a single mother who’d just narrowly escaped eviction, but can’t rest easy because her monthly rent is about $335 more than what her job pays.

She knows that she should move the family to a more affordable place. but even the no-bedroom apartments she’s found rent for barely less than what she makes.

She applied for a housing voucher eight years ago. The family is now “1,000 something” on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list, she says. There are about 40,000 families behind her. And there would be more if DCHA hadn’t closed the list three years ago.

The problem NLIHC documents is hardly unique to the District. The shortages it documents are actually larger nationwide, as are the severe housing burdens. We can, I think chalk this up partly to investments of local funds.

But that’s hardly a source of comfort to District families who can barely come up with the monthly rent and money for the electricity bill — or who can’t, but manage to stay housed, heated and the like by putting off first one and then the other.

These families are obviously one loss of working hours or other new strain on their budgets away from homelessness — or just one more late rent payment.

The District may rapidly re-house them. But few will be able to pay full rent when their short-term subsidies expire — or find an apartment they can afford. And the proposed budget would by no means fund LRSP vouchers for all that will need them to remain securely housed.

The Mayor has embraced the goal of making homelessness a rare, brief, one-time experience in the District. So it’s perplexing to see that she’s proposing a smaller real-dollar increase for LRSP than budgeted in any recent year but one.

Not much of the “fair shot” her budget promises for those residents on the waiting list and the severely housing-burdened who aren’t because they couldn’t apply.

 


DC Mayor Leaves TANF Families Dangling Near Bottom of a Cliff

March 28, 2016

Mayor Bowser said, in her State of the District address, that she would ask the DC Council to raise the local minimum wage to $15 an hour. She wants to “make sure that more families … can earn a decent wage … [s]o that when their time on TANF has ended, they can afford to stay in the District of Columbia.”

Meanwhile, a reform of some sort “will keep families working their plans from falling off a cliff.” This, I take it, refers to families headed by parents who are putting in the required number of hours on their required work preparation and/or job search activities.

The Mayor’s proposed budget quashes whatever hope her speech raised. It would, once again, just push back the benefits cut-off for families who’ve participated in TANF for 60 months or more.

Better than pushing them out of the program six months from now. But they’d still receive only the drastically lower cash aid intended to lead up to the cut-off — perhaps with a very small adjustment to compensate for inflation.

A family of three now receives $156 a month — $1.71 per person, per day. Seems to me they’re already pretty near the bottom of that cliff.

One could understand the cut-off delay if the notion of extending benefits indefinitely for some at-risk families were altogether new such that experts in the Human Services Department had to start developing a proposal from scratch.

If they had no precedents in other states to look at, instead of those in forty-four. If the notion of preserving benefits for all the 13,600 or so children who’d get only a temporary reprieve had never crossed the Mayor’s radar screen before.

If no research had found that children in extreme poverty suffer irreparable damages that put them at extremely high risk for a lifetime of poverty.

The Mayor knows, as do many of you, that the Council already has a pending bill that would qualify families for extensions if cutting off their TANF benefits would leave them penniless — or in less dire cases, short of enough wage income to cover their basic needs.

The same bill would extend a lifeline to all children, even those whose parents didn’t qualify. And it would restore the cash benefits they and reprieved parents would receive if not up against the time limit.

That’s hardly enough to live on, even with other safety net benefits, but a whole lot better than what the Mayor intends. Our family of three would have $288 more a month — and could look forward to an increase next year, if still not earning enough to boost it over the income cut-off.

Strengthening the safety net, as the bill proposes, would cost roughly $30 million during the upcoming year — $20 million more than the Mayor’s kick-the-can-down-the-road-again approach.

She chooses instead to give more than half the total to businesses through another cut in the franchise tax and to the beneficiaries of estates, which would have no tax levied until the value, after deductions exceeded $2 million.*

The Council triggered these tax cuts — and possibly others — in its latest budget-related legislation, but she could have asked it to defer them.

I have nothing like the expertise to say where else Bowser and her budget experts could have found the funds needed for the TANF extensions. But they’re surely somewhere in that $13.4 billion budget.

I realize I’m not giving the Mayor credit for a number of fine budget proposals — $13.1 million to move the plan to end homelessness forward, for example, another $100 million commitment to help finance construction and/or preservation of affordable housing, further investments in public education. And so on.

But I can’t get over her decision to leave nearly 6,600 poor families hanging by a thread when she has such a clear, justifiable alternative. And I don’t think Councilmembers should go along when they could, at least in this respect, make the budget live up to its billing as “a fair shot.”

* Current law exempts assets that pass directly to surviving spouses and/or charitable organizations. So the larger tax break wouldn’t benefit them. It would benefit other heirs if either or both received some of the assets because the taxable value doesn’t include them.

UPDATE: I’ve just seen the Chief Financial Officer’s (unpublished) cost estimate for the short-term reprieve. He puts it at $11.6 million, based on an estimated 6,200 families and no cost-of-living adjustment, as I had thought there might be.


What’s New (and Not) in the House Budget Committee Plan

March 24, 2016

I feel sorry for progressive analysts and advocates whose main business is the federal budget and related issues because they again have to swat down pernicious proposals and misleading justifications.

I myself am tired of blogging on the retreads we see in the proposed House budget resolution — the immediate occasion of my pity and exasperation that I suspect is shared.

So what’s new? A few things that would devastate programs for low-income people, as well as some not new.

Vast Spending Cuts

The Washington Post has repeatedly reported that the House budget plan would cut spending by $30 billion over two years to offset what last year’s budget deal allows above the caps originally set for the upcoming fiscal year.

This is doubly misleading, though not, I think, intentionally. First off, the deal has already offset that $30 billion, though the savings reach the total over a longer period of time. Second, the plan would actually cut spending by $6.5 trillion during the next 10 years, the usual window for budget-related estimates.

The massive cut isn’t new. Nor the justification for it. The plan, like its recent predecessors aims to balance the federal budget, without raising more revenues.

It would, in fact, raise less than likely now because it would eliminate taxes on all profits corporations claim to earn overseas and the Alternative Minimum Tax collected from well-off individual filers who benefit from the lower capital gains tax rate, plus diverse deductions and credits.

Where the “Savings” Would Come From

The House Budget Committee finds roughly a sixth of its savings in discretionary programs, i.e., those that depend on annual appropriations. Most are subject to the caps, while only a few others are.

The plan provides for spending up to the somewhat higher caps agreed to for the upcoming fiscal year. But it doubles down in the years following, while boosting spending on defense even more than the budget tables show.

Spending on non-defense discretionary programs would fall by about $1 trillion below the current caps, according to a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimate.

These programs include a wide variety that serve low-income people’s immediate needs, e.g., affordable housing and child care, help with home heating bills. Others offer them or their children opportunities to improve their earnings prospects, e.g., job training, work-study for college students.

Most have already lost real-dollar value since the year before Congress passed the law that imposed the caps, as the Coalition on Human Needs shows.

A much bigger chunk of the savings would come from changes in mandatory programs, i.e., those the federal government must spend enough on to provide full benefits authorized by laws other than a budget.

What’s not new is a sketch of sorts for partially privatizing Medicare. Likewise proposals to convert Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) to block grants.

The former would reduce federal spending by more than $1 trillion, the latter by $125 billion — nearly a third during the block grant’s first four years. Another $25 billion or so saved by not-new proposals House Republicans tried to get into the latest version of the Farm Bill.

The block-granting impacts are self-evident, as they’ve always been. Either states would have to use significantly more of their own funds to sustain the same benefits to the same groups now eligible or they’d have to cut benefits, deny them to some or a combination of both.

What’s sort of new is the re-branding. The undermined programs wouldn’t be block grants, but rather state flexibility funds, the more palatable term the House Budget Committee adopted last year.

I’ll have more to say about the Committee’s plans for healthcare programs because the not-new proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act and a separate effort to undermine it pose broader threats than the block grant in and of itself.

I’ll just cut to the chase here in hopes of answering a question I’m guessing is on the minds of those of you still reading what seems the same old, same old with new numbers.

Why Worth a Worry

The House Budget Committee’s plan won’t develop into next year’s budget — or the many legislative changes needed to gut the mandatory programs. It may not even pass in the House because some of the Tea Partiers feel it doesn’t cut spending enough.

If it does pass, it won’t in the Senate, even if all Republicans there vote for it because they’d need at least six Democrats to join them. Lotsa luck there.

Yet I think the analysts and advocates I pity are right to not just shrug off the plan as a waste of their energies and time. Set aside, if we can, the upcoming elections.

When state flexibility funds, attacks on the ACA and other radical spending cuts resurface year after year, they become familiar in a way that doesn’t breed contempt. They gain a sort of tolerance — as negotiable perhaps or at least due the deference we generally accord debatable propositions.

Not saying all is right with all the programs the federal government funds. But the notion that it should leave the well-being of low-income and other disadvantaged Americans to the states they live in — and whatever those states can and choose to spend — seems to me fundamentally wrong.

This is not a notion that should cease to shock just because it’s teed up year after year, with new wrinkles and rhetorical flourishes.

All told, the House budget plan would cut spending on programs for low-income people by $3.5 trillion over the next 10 years — about 40% of what’s spent now or nearly one and a half times their share of non-defense spending.

And that should shock as much as the House Republican majority’s first budget plan — the ironically entitled Path to Prosperity — did.