No Government Shutdown Isn’t Good Enough

October 13, 2016

As I’m sure you know, the federal government doesn’t have a budget for this fiscal year. Congress narrowly averted a shutdown with a continuing resolution. So programs that depend on annual spending choices can keep operating at their current funding levels until December 10.

Then what? Well, the government almost surely won’t have a new budget to replace the CR. Nothing unusual about this. Congress has relied on at least one CR in all but four budget seasons since 1977.

Speaker Paul Ryan said the House would return to “regular order” under his leadership, i.e., pass each of the dozen appropriations bills that make up the budget. So did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But they’re not even close. The Senate has passed only three appropriations bills and the House five. They haven’t negotiated final versions of any, though one got folded into the CR.

So we’re likely to have another — either that or a package containing some newly-passed appropriations bills and an extension of current funding levels for the rest.

One way or the other we’re unlikely to have a government shutdown. So why should we care whether we’ve got a bona fide budget or not?

We shouldn’t, I think, care much if Congress decides to punt again — and only once more. But a longer-term CR would leave critical programs under-funded, including some especially important for low-income people.

Consider affordable housing. The Housing Choice voucher program needs more funding annually merely to sustain the number of vouchers in current use because, as you’ve probably noticed, rents rise — and with them, the amount the vouchers must usually cover.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs roughly $765 million more for that, according to the President’s proposed budget. A somewhat similar program administered by the Agriculture Department needs an additional 18 million.

And steady state isn’t good enough. Fewer than one in four low-income households that qualify for housing assistance have it. Three quarters of those who don’t pay at least half their income for rent.

And, of course, some can’t. We don’t know yet how many people nationwide the latest homeless counts found. But we do know that last year’s identified about 564,700, including nearly 127,790 children who were with parents or other caregivers.

Yet the current budget is still shy about 59,000 vouchers left unfunded by the across-the-board cuts the Budget Control Act required and choices Congress made to comply with its (modified) spending caps.

These are indefinite-term vouchers. HUD’s homeless assistance grants fund, among other things, the time-limited vouchers local agencies provide through their rapid re-housing programs.

They also help fund permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people — not necessarily permanent, but subsidized for as long as occupants need it.

As with other types of housing, per-unit costs steadily rise. Just renewing current contracts would cost roughly $2 billion, HUD estimates.

This is barely less than the total current funding level for homeless assistance grants, which also help cover costs of shelters, diverse services and short-shot aid to prevent homelessness. Costs for these rise too.

A long-term CR would obviously tighten the squeeze — and so put progress toward ending homelessness even further behind what’s needed to achieve the goals that federal agencies collectively set in 2010.  Likewise the goals that local communities have embraced, including the District of Columbia.

All such efforts require ramped-up investments in housing that poor and near-poor people can afford, as well as the subsidies and services funded in part through HUD’s homeless assistance grants.

The federal partner would need to do considerably more than the majorities in Congress seem inclined to. Both the House and Senate have, however, passed bills that would provide somewhat more funding for both regular housing vouchers and homeless assistance.

But not identical bills. So even slight increases might not reach state and local agencies — and if not them, then not the people who are homeless or paying so much for rent that they’re short on money for food, medical care, shoes for the kids, etc.

These slices of the HUD budget are, of course, only examples of what prolonged level funding would mean.

CLASP cites several others. These would further limit job prospects for youth and older adults who lack the education and skills our labor market demands — and for affordable, high-quality child care.

Experts in other areas could undoubtedly name a host of others that a long-term CR would significantly shortchange. Not only low-income people would suffer, but they’d get hit from more directions.

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Some People’s Water Crises Are More Urgent Than Others

October 3, 2016

A public epidemic has become public knowledge, thanks, in a manner of speaking, to egregious negligence by Michigan state and local Flint officials.

We’ve learned that millions of children are at risk of lead poisoning — or already have it. Undoubtedly adults too. And they can suffer a wide range of harms. But such research as we have focuses on young children because they’re at highest risk for lifelong damages.

So what then have our federal policymakers done since all this became common knowledge?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken a first step toward strengthening protections against the most common sources of lead poisoning — old house paint and the soil around housing.

But I’ll defer that and focus here on water because it’s been made newly newsworthy by a cliffhanger we may see again.

The administration sent water, filters, funds and folks to Flint shortly after Michigan’s governor declared a state of emergency. But there are still reportedly problems with the water there. And they’ll cost many millions of dollars to fix.

Flint is hardly the only community with lead in the water that comes out of faucets in homes and schools. And, as with Flint, dumping some chemicals into the water supply won’t solve the problem. Lead pipes corrode and have to be replaced.

USA Today reports nearly 2,000 other water systems with higher lead levels than the maximum the Environmental Protection Agency has set as a trigger for action. They’re in all 50 states, it says.

In the District of Columbia too, it seems, though our big lead-in-the-water crisis supposedly ended in 2005 — not, however, because the District no longer has lead pipes. And not apparently because the chemicals added to the water protect us.

The agency responsible for public buildings recently found that over half the public school water systems it tested had lead levels higher than the EPA trigger.

That’s three times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control now says should trigger public health actions. So we’ve had a child health emergency for some time.

The Senate recently approved $220 million to address leaded water problems — this by an overwhelming majority. About $100 million would go to states with drinking water emergencies.

They’d get an additional $70 million to subsidize (not by much) loans for related infrastructure projects. Another $50 million would be divvied up among small, economically disadvantaged communities to help them comply with existing drinking water standards.

This much is fully offset in the much larger water resources development bill. The substantial investments needed to remedy water infrastructure problems would hinge on the outcomes of the annual budget process.

Leading Senate Democrats wanted the paid-for piece included in the continuing resolution needed to prevent a government shutdown. The Republican leadership would have none of it, though it included more than twice as much to aid recently-flooded communities, mainly in Louisiana.

A stalemate then because not enough Democrats would agree to vote on the CR unless it did something about both water crises. And the House couldn’t pass a CR without Democrats because too many Republicans there object to such a short-term stopgap.

A compromise forged by the House Speaker and Democratic Minority Leader averted this different sort of crisis. Seems that impending government shutdowns, like hangings, concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Basically, they agreed to amend the House version of the water resources bill. It had no funds for Flint or any other community whose residents, the youngest especially, are at risk of lead poisoning.

The amended bill, also passed by a large majority, would add $170 million. So there may be some money in the pipeline for some communities with lead in their water pipelines in the upcoming year.

But the $50 million difference in emergency spending is only one of many differences between the House and Senate bills. So negotiators will have a lot of work to do. And whatever they come up with will, of course, have to pass in both the House and Senate.

No such delay or doubts for the flooded communities, however, because their half million is in the CR. Some people’s water crises are more urgent than others.

Now, if lead-laden water had been flowing into members’ own homes — or out of the drinking fountains in their children’s schools ….


No Government Shutdown (Now), But Congress May Shut Out More From Affordable Housing

October 5, 2015

If the official poverty rate ticks down at the same pace it did last year, we won’t see it cut in half until 2040, the Coalition on Human Needs reports. Not even then if we have another recession, which, of course, we will.

What this tells us, CHN says, is that economic growth won’t reduce poverty fast enough. We need bigger investments in programs with a strong anti-poverty track record.

Doesn’t look as if bigger investments are in the cards. The Republican majorities in Congress insist that appropriations for non-defense programs total no more than the budget cap set by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

What we may forget is that the cap — and caps going forward — were set after Congress cut appropriations by about $38 billion, thus lowering the baseline the caps were based on. So even if the non-defense cap were lifted by $37 billion, as the President proposed, funding would still be lower than in 2010.

Hard to know whether we will have a genuine budget for the upcoming fiscal year. We’ll have a short-term continuing resolution instead.

But not an ordinary CR because it doesn’t maintain program-by-program spending at the same level it’s been. It instead makes cuts in non-defense programs — a total of about $7 billion — so as to bring spending below the FY 2016 cap.

And we might not have even this if House Speaker John Boehner hadn’t resigned, freeing himself, it seems, to let the House vote on the CR, even though so many of his Republican colleagues signaled they’d balk that it couldn’t pass without Democrats.

So we won’t have a government shutdown. We’ll instead have the stage set for a showdown in early December — or sooner.

A more complex situation then because Congress will have to somehow deal with not only the expiring CR, but the expiration of nominally temporary tax breaks and the fact that the Treasury Department will have exhausted measures it can take to avert a default on the federal debt.

Some predict another budget deal like the one that pulled us back from the so-called fiscal cliff at the tail end of 2012. Others a year-long CR.

Assume that becomes the solution. Well, we know (or should) that even level funding doesn’t mean as many people served as well as they’ve been served.

Take Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers, for example. Actually, you probably can’t if you don’t already have a voucher — perhaps not even if you do.

We all know that rents generally rise — and have been rising faster in recent years. Utility costs are rising also. And they’re folded into what housing vouchers help pay for.

Incomes of households in the bottom tier of the affordability scale generally haven’t kept pace. So their share of rent, plus basic utilities — 30% of income — covers less. Each voucher then usually costs the agency that issues it more.

What this means is that funding for Housing Choice would have to increase each year just to maintain a steady state. But it hasn’t. Quite the contrary.

The across-the-board cuts in 2013 left a large majority of local housing agencies without funds to cover their share of rent for all the vouchers they’d issued.

By and large, they coped by holding back vouchers they’d otherwise have reissued when households that had them not longer qualified, e.g., because they’d moved out of the area or gained enough income to boost them over the eligibility cut-off.

Some pulled back vouchers they’d issued to people who hadn’t yet found apartments. At least one changed its standards, requiring voucher holders to either move to smaller units or come up with the money for rooms that were now “extra.”

And some actually shifted funds from vouchers to cope with other shortfalls, exacerbated, but not originating in the cuts — mainly under-funding for the program that covers the costs of maintaining and renovating public housing.

They could do this because they were part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work pilot, which essentially converted their federal housing assistance funding to a block grant.

But for a seemingly over-flexible, under-monitored MTW, about 63,000 more households would have had vouchers last year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates.

On the other hand, more probably had apartments in public housing than if the MTW agencies hadn’t shifted funds to keep units from becoming unlivable.

So the story’s a bit more complicated than direct cuts to the Housing Choice program. But choices Congress has made nevertheless account for the shrinking number of households that make rent affordable.

The across-the-board cuts ultimately denied about 100,000 households vouchers they’d otherwise have had. Congress later restored some of the lost funds — enough to renew all vouchers issued and put some back in circulation.

Yet the boosts in the last two budgets will still leave roughly 68,560 fewer households with vouchers than pre-sequestration, according to CBPP estimates (and my calculator). And there weren’t enough vouchers well before the Budget Control Act and aftermath.

Of course, the House and Senate might agree to an actual budget. So it’s worth a look at what could then arrive on the President’s desk. Will confine myself again to Housing Choice.

House funding for HUD would reverse the progress made toward restoring lost vouchers. The White House predicts a loss of 28,000 more.

Over on the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee says its bill would “continue assistance to all individuals and families served by both Section 8 and public housing.” The White House, however, contends that the funding level falls short of what would be needed to renew roughly 50,300 vouchers.

Distressing, to put it mildly, that folks who call the shots in Congress seem disposed to make a bad situation worse.


Nearly One In Five Americans Still Struggle With Hunger

March 27, 2011

The latest food hardship report from the Food Research and Action Center is one more indication that the recession is by no means over for a vast number of Americans.

In 2010, the nationwide food hardship rate was barely lower than in 2009 — 18%, as compared to 18.3%. In the other words, nearly one out of five people in this country sometimes didn’t have enough to eat.

Things were worse at the end of 2008. But, for reasons as yet unexplained, the food hardship rate for the last quarter of 2010 was the highest since Congress passed the temporary increase in food stamp benefits in the first quarter of 2009.

As I’ve said before, “food hardship” is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture terms “food insecurity”.

A family is counted as having experienced food hardship if the member surveyed answers in the affirmative when asked, “Have there been times during the last 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you and your family needed?”

The new FRAC report is considerably more expansive than the update issued in January. It’s the organization’s second full analysis of data Gallup collects to use for a broader well-being index.

Unlike the survey the Census Bureau conducts for USDA, the Gallup sample is large enough to allow reasonably reliable breakouts by small geographic areas and also year-over-year comparisons at the state level.

This makes the report uniquely valuable in two ways.

First, it’s a fine advocacy tool because it provides food hardship rates for every Congressional district in the country. Want to tell your Representative to support the President’s proposed fix for the recent cutback in the food stamp boost? Cite the food hardship rate in your district.

Second, it lets us drill down below the nationwide figure in a variety of ways. We get figures not only for Congressional districts, but for each major region, each state and the District of Columbia and each of the 100 largest metropolitan statistical areas, i.e., city-centered geographic areas defined for use by the Census Bureau and other federal statistical agencies.

So we learn, for example, that:

  • Food hardship rates are highest in the Southeast and Southwest. Indeed, 12 of the 20 states with the highest 2010 rates are in these regions.
  • Rates are at least 20% in 21 states, with Mississippi topping them all at nearly 29%.
  • Rates are 15% or higher in all but five states.
  • In no state is the rate below 10%.
  • Here in our nation’s capital, the rate is 18.9%, putting the District again in the middle of the state ranking.

In short, as the FRAC report says, “food hardship is a problem in every corner of America, and should be of concern to every member of Congress.”

Ah yes, but is it?

FRAC attributes the persistently high food hardship rates to the ongoing jobs crisis. As it notes, the 2010 U-6 rates — the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ broadest measure of unemployment and underemployment — were generally comparable to those in 2009 and rose a bit toward the end of the year.

And even the U-6 measure understates the total number of jobless people who’d like to — and need to — work because it doesn’t include people who gave up looking more than a year ago.

But both the White House and Congress seem to have put the jobs crisis behind them. The hot debate is how much and where to cut spending. And, Republican assertions notwithstanding, spending cuts mean job losses.

The current spending-cut focus spells trouble for people who urgently need food assistance in other, more direct ways.

The continuing resolution the House passed in late February would cut funding for WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) by about 10%. It would also cut funding for several other programs that help feed low-income people.

These cuts would theoretically be only temporary, since a new federal budget year begins on October 1. But they suggest that President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2012 proposals to address hunger and poor nutrition could face the chopping block.

Let’s hope all those members of Congress with high food hardship rates decide that three squares a day for the nearly 48 million poor people in this country are a better investment than, say, those still-unready, way-over-budget F-25 fighter planes.

UPDATE: Hope may spring eternal, but the Welfare Reform Act recently introduced by some House Republicans would, among other things, eliminate what remains of the funding to keep food stamp benefits at the higher level they’ve been since 2009, when the economic recovery act was passed.

Since this posting was first published, I’ve written another explaining why the bill threatens all safety net programs.