Local Nonprofits Tell DC Leaders Not to Govern With Hands Tied

February 1, 2017

Shortly after I published my latest blast against the District of Columbia’s triggered tax law, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and about 50 other local organizations sent a letter to the Mayor and Council urging them to take the same steps I characterized as first priority defenses against prospective federal spending cuts.

They also recommend changing another law, which requires the District to put any funds not spent by the end of the fiscal year into savings accounts. That makes them unavailable for a wide range of critical needs, including those that may lose federal funds.

The sign-on list is still open. If you work for an organization that would like to join, you’ll find the instructions at the end of the letter. A fairly quick and easy way to support progress in these times of extraordinary uncertainties.

Insight Gained From Trying to Contact Social Security

February 2, 2015

My husband Jesse’s death has been a learning experience for me in many ways. One thing I’ve learned is why so many Americans who don’t have principled objections to major federal programs hate “big government” — and how spending cuts can build support for more.

Checklists I’d been sent told me that I should notify the Social Security Administration of Jesse’s death so that it would stop deposits to his bank account. Foreseeing, as I now know I shouldn’t have, some impending fraud claim, I went to the SSA website, thinking I could notify the agency there. Wrong.

So I called the 800 number. Recorded messages telling me things I didn’t need to know, e.g., the new cost of living adjustment, the Medicare Part B premium. Then a lengthy Q&A with an interactive program. Then a message telling me my wait time would be 45 minutes, but that I could get a callback instead. Opted for that. No call.

So called again. Same routine. Had to hang up after close to 45 minutes to take other calls. Try again. Same results. Finally decided what I should do is get an appointment at the nearest SSA office. Can’t do that on the website either. And so …. Well, you know what.

I finally got to a live human being after about 50 minutes. She told me I could schedule a telephonic meeting. The first available appointment was nearly six weeks away. For  me, this is really no big deal. But what if I’d depended on Jesse for financial support and urgently needed the ongoing survivor benefits I’d have been entitled to?

Frustrations like those I experienced are directly traceable to inadequate funding that has put the squeeze on services for many years. SSA simply doesn’t have the budget for anything like the number of staff it needs.

This is also the case for the Internal Revenue Service, which may be able to answer only 43% of taxpayer calls this filing season — and for the lucky minority whose wait times pan out, only to answer the most basic questions.

No answers whatever for people who don’t file by April 15. No more personal help with tax returns for low-income, elderly and disabled filers either. Well, what do you expect when the agency’s budget, in real dollars, is about 17% less than in 2010.

“The way Congress has been handling the funding of the IRS, it’s as if it wants us to hate the agency,” Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary observes. Indeed.

SSA and IRS aren’t the only agencies short-staffed. Blogger Paul Waldman recently posted a pair of charts showing how the federal workforce has shrunk over time. The more telling shows that the number of federal employees per 100,000 residents has dropped by 43% since 1968.

Ramping up automation and other “efficiencies” can do only so much. Only people can, for example, staff the visitors centers in our national parks, protect the wildlife (and the visitors) and plow the snow off the roads so the parks are accessible.

Anyone who knows how angry residents get when streets aren’t swiftly plowed after a snowstorm can imagine how angry some 135,000 people were at our federal government when they learned they couldn’t get into Yellowstone National Park for two weeks after it was scheduled to open.

Chalk this up to budget cuts — including, but not limited to the across-the-board cuts that affected all federal agencies in 2013.

I could run out other examples, but I think the point is clear. The spending-slashers have created a feedback loop. We expect reasonably timely, responsive services, especially when critical needs are at stake.

We’re driven around the bend by faceless bureaucrats, like the administrative law judges who taken an average of 422 days to rule on appeals when claims for disability benefits are denied, as they often are. Others, also faceless who don’t even put veterans needing medical care on a waiting list.

Bodiless, mindless bureaucrats, like what Jesse and I used to call the metal person who put me through the drill before I could get into the queue of calls waiting  at SSA.

Whether such frustrations translate into self-defeating support for further cuts to specific agencies’ budgets isn’t altogether clear.

Michael Hiltzik at the Los Angeles Times, among others, perceives “a political motivation” in the case of SSA — specifically, that conservatives aim to make Social Security “less relevant” to everyday folks so they’ll be more willing to accept an alternative, e.g. private retirement savings accounts.

Maybe. What I’m more confident of is that unduly slow, insufficient and/or messed-up services help persuade Americans that the federal government is too damn big and ought to be retrenched.

That, of course, serves radically-right Congress members well, since they’d like nothing better than to pare off all but a few core functions, leaving the rest to state and local governments, private businesses, civil society organizations and individuals themselves.

Method in what seems the madness of forcing IRS staffing cuts that will cost the federal government at least $2 billion this year alone in taxes dodged or inadvertently not paid.

TANF Safety Net Keeps Fraying

December 19, 2011

Safety nets are supposed to catch people when they fall so they don’t crash to the ground. So too with what we call safety net programs. We’ve created them so that people don’t land in desperate poverty.

We’d thus expect safety net programs to catch more people when the economy tanks, as it did in late 2007. We’d expect them to provide enough aid to serve their basic purpose, i.e., ensuring that needy people have enough to eat, a roof over their heads, essential medical care, etc.

By this modest measure, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has egregiously failed — no surprise, given past performance.

A new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities confirms this with two updated perspectives on the TANF safety net — what portion of poor families with children is it catching and how much is it helping those caught to meet their basic needs.

TANF Enrollment

TANF was created in 1996 to replace AID to Families with Dependent Children —  a program under which the federal government provided states with matching funds based on what benefits were costing and need.

“Welfare reform” converted this scheme to a fixed-sum block grant, plus a Contingency Fund states could draw on during hard economic times — until the Fund ran dry.

At the time, AFDC was providing cash assistance to 68% of poor families with children. Participation rates have been steadily falling — and not because fewer families were poor enough to need aid.

TANF did expand slightly — by 13% — after the recession set in. But in 2009, only 27% of families in poverty received any cash assistance from the program.

Cash Benefits

TANF cash benefits started out low — an average of about $395.50 a month for a family of three.

As of 2008, 28 states and the District of Columbia had increased the nominal value of the benefits they provided, but fewer than half enacted increases big enough to even keep pace with inflation.

Since then, inflation has continued to make dollars worth less. But most states have frozen benefit levels. Six states and the District have actually cut them.*

A perfect storm of reasons for this — mostly attributable to federal policies. Most important perhaps are the year-after-year failure to increase funding for the block grant and rules that allow states to use TANF funds for more politically-popular programs.

Add to these two recent decision by our penny-pinching Congress.

The first was to let the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund die, thus denying states more of the extra funding the Recovery Act had provided to help them cope with recession-related pressures.

The second, more recent denied 17 mostly poor states supplemental funds they’d been receiving since TANF was created and, at the same time, cut back what had already been approved for the regular Contingency Fund.

I don’t want to let states — or the District — off the hook here. They’ve been choosing to economize on TANF cash benefits for a long time. Even in tough economic years like these, budgets are choices.

Nevertheless, the federal partner has been shirking its share of responsibility for maintaining the TANF safety net — and allowing states to shirk theirs as well.

End result is that:

  • TANF cash benefits are worth less now than in 1996 in all but two states.
  • They’ve declined by at least 20% in 34 states and the District.
  • No state provides benefits that lift a family of three out of extreme poverty, i.e., above 50% of the federal poverty line.
  • In 29 states and the District, benefits for the family are below 30% of the FPL.
  • They’re below 20% in 14 states, nine of which have lost their supplemental grants.

This unfortunately may not be the worst of the bad news.

As CBPP earlier reported, a number of states have already projected budget shortfalls for Fiscal Year 2013.

They could face gaps they hadn’t expected due to the automatic spending cuts the debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal will trigger — or cuts Congress may pass to avert them.

* Unlike most of the state cuts, the District’s cut applies to families who’ve participated in TANF for a total of more than five years. And it’s progressive — first 20% less, then 25% less till there’s nothing left. The DC Council deferred the second round of cuts, but they’re scheduled to resume in 2013.

Congress Set To Slash Fund For Public Housing Maintenance

November 7, 2011

Public housing has gotten a bad rap — in some cases, deservedly so. We’ve all read, I suppose, about notorious warehouses of the poor like Chicago’s crime-ridden, dilapidated Cabrini-Green.

But, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reminds us, public housing comes in many sizes and types — from single-family dwellings to apartment complexes.

For about 1.2 million low-income seniors, families and individuals with disabilities, public housing means home and community.

It’s an endangered affordable housing option — and has been for some time.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan says that 105,000 affordable units have been lost through demolition or sale since 1995. Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project puts the figure at closer to 280,000.

Many reasons for this, including public policies that favor mixed-income developments and dispersal of the poor. These have probably contributed to the egregious neglect of many still-standing public housing facilities.

According to the latest assessment for HUD, public housing has an estimated $25.6 billion backlog of capital needs for repairs and renovations.

Yet Congress seems poised to slash the Public Housing Capital Fund, which provides grants that help local housing authorities keep (or make) their public housing livable.

Last spring, Congress approved just over $2 billion for the Fund — a miniscule down payment on backlogged and ongoing repair and rehab needs. This was a cut of nearly $500 million compared to Fiscal Year 2010.

The President requested about $4 million more for this fiscal year. Our spending-cutters in Congress would have none of it, as this table from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Transportation/HUD decided to cut the proposal by 25%, leaving the Capital Fund with $508 million less than it’s got now.

The Senate Appropriations Committee did just a bit better, with a cut of 22% or $165.1 million.

The full Senate recently approved this as part of a mini-omnibus budget bill, i.e., a package of three multi-agency appropriations bills, including Transportation/HUD.

What will happen next is hard to predict, but only from a process perspective.

Ordinarily, the full House Appropriations Committee and then the House itself would vote on the Subcommittee’s Transportation/HUD bill. Then House and Senate representatives would work out a compromise, which would go back to both chambers for final votes.

Or the majority leaders would decide they couldn’t possibly get all unfinished appropriations bills passed on time and instead roll them all up into one huge omnibus budget bill.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

The House Republican leadership is reportedly unenthusiastic about omnibus bills. And it might have difficulty getting its Tea Party wing to vote for one, even if it tried.

On the other hand, even its most right-wing members understand that the federal government must be funded at some level. And it won’t be unless Congress passes something — or some things — by November 18, when the current continuing resolution expires.

One way or the other, it’s hard to imagine that public housing won’t get shortchanged, as it has in the past.

And hard to imagine that we won’t see more public housing losses.

As everyone knows, housing deteriorates if its not maintained. Costs of repairing the damage grow exponentially. A leak in the roof turns into spreading rot. Faulty electrical wiring causes a fire. (Take it from one who knows.)

So, as in the past, public housing authorities are likely to decide to demolish neglected dwellings or sell them off to private parties who’ve got no obligation to restore them or replace them with housing that’s affordable for low-income renters.

Two years ago, 7.1 million very low-income households had what HUD terms “worst case needs.” In other words, they paid more than half their income for rent, lived in severely substandard housing or both.

This represents an increase of nearly 42% since 2001. We obviously need more federal funding to preserve public housing stock — and more federal housing vouchers too.

Congress has underfunded affordable housing programs for some time. Now it seems set to create even more worst cases.

More homelessness too.

NOTE: This is the second in a series on Fiscal Year 2012 HUD appropriations. The first — on housing voucher cuts — is here.

Hunger Costs U.S. At Least $167.5 Billion A Year

October 31, 2011

No one should have to make a cost-benefit case for eliminating hunger. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile thing to do.

Among other things, it raises our awareness of the human and economic wastes we tolerate because we won’t, as a nation, invest enough in programs that would significantly reduce hunger.

A new report from the Center for American Progress takes on the costs of hunger in America in a serious way.

Basically, it meshes data from scientific studies that, in the authors’ view, provide two kinds of “credible evidence” — quantitative estimates of the relationship between food insecurity and its consequences and the economic costs of those consequences.

Costed-out consequences fall into three broad categories:

  • Adverse impacts on mental and physical health — both direct costs of medical care and indirect costs like missed work days and premature deaths
  • “Poor educational outcomes” and resulting losses in lifetime earnings — the latter becomes “outcomes” like having to repeat a grade lead to higher dropout rates, which in turn generally lead to bottom-of-the-barrel wages
  • Charitable donations to nonprofits that serve meals or provide takeaway foods for low-income people

Bottom line when these are all added up: Hunger cost our country $167.5 billion in 2010 — probably more, the authors say, because there aren’t enough data to quantify total health consequences.

The report updates a 2007 study and includes figures from that year. We thus get a read on the hunger-cost impacts of the recession.

These are, as you might guess, significant.

The 2010 hunger “bill” was somewhat over 33% — $42 billion — higher than the bill for 2007. (Note that this does not include increases in federal food assistance costs driven by the rising number of people poor enough to qualify.)

The new CAP report also expands on the 2007 study. It folds in the costs of special education that can be linked to hunger — about $6.4 billion in 2010 alone.

It also breaks out both the 2007 and the 2010 total hunger bills by state. A table for these and also a separately-posted interactive map.

We find, not surprisingly, that hunger costs in some states rose by far higher percentages than others.

Florida and California — both hit disproportionately hard by the recession — top the list with increases of 61.9% and 47.1% respectively. These and 10 other states racked up at least $1 billion more in hunger costs than in 2007.

Here in the District of Columbia, the hunger bill was 21.6% higher than in 2007 — a lower percent increase than in all but 12 states.

But still nothing to cheer about. In dollar terms, hunger cost us locals $60 million more in 2010 than in 2007, giving us a bill of $360.2 million or more than $598 per resident.

The hunger cost authors have relatively little to say about what policymakers could do to make a significant dent in domestic hunger — and thus in the bill we indirectly pay via taxes, charitable contributions, poor health, lost income, etc.

They allude, in general terms, to a mix of policies that “could achieve sustained reductions in hunger and food insecurity” — mainly by boosting the incomes of poor and near-poor workers.

But their primary aim is to “help policymakers gauge the magnitude of the [hunger] problem and the economic benefits of potential solutions.”

Forgive me, but I think this gives our policymakers a whole lot more credit than the vast majority deserve.

This cost study is very interesting. It’s a great source of talking points for advocates and for policymakers who’ve got anti-poverty proposals they want to promote.

But I doubt it will make a whit of difference to those in Congress who want to cut spending on food stamps, job training programs, Pell grants and the like. Or to their state-level counterparts who truly are, as the cliche goes, balancing their budgets on the backs of the poor.

After all, we’ve had similar cost studies before — not only for hunger in general, but for child hunger and child poverty.

And where are we now? Busting our butts just to save the programs we’ve got.

A Bad Debt Deal, But It Could Have Been Worse

August 2, 2011

Welcome to the Monday Morning Quarterback Club. We’ve got lots of members rehashing the weekend debt ceiling game — players as well as spectators like yours truly.

The White House is celebrating a bipartisan deal that it claims is a win for both “the economy and budget discipline.”

House Speaker John Boehner says “it’s not the greatest deal in the world,” but there’s nothing in it that violates our [right-wing Republican] principles.”

The pundits generally agree with Boehner that it’s not the deal one would have wanted. Beyond that, they diverge dramatically. Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein provides a good sample — and a smart assessment.

The deal, he says, represents “the lowest-common denominator.” No entitlement cuts, no tax increases, no stimulus spending and no infrastructure investments.

Actually, there’s not much of anything specific, except for targets and process. Which makes it very much like the balanced budget amendment the deal commits Congress to vote on.

Big dollar figures. Percent cuts for this and that. Very little that enables anyone to fault the President or members of Congress for their choices about program-specific spending.

By and large, I agree with many of the less ferociously angry analysts and advocates on the left. It’s a bad deal, but not as bad as it could have been. And not nearly as bad as no deal at all.

It’s a bad deal because there’s no balance between spending cuts and revenue raisers — though that was rightly a key item for the Democrats.

Not so bad as it could have been because, Boehner notwithstanding, the bipartisan Congressional committee that’s been charged with figuring out how to get to the bigger of the two deficit reduction targets could, in theory, propose new taxes and/or other tax code reforms that would reap more revenues.

It’s a bad deal because it requires spending cuts when the economy actually needs another infusion of stimulus spending.

New figures show the economy has all but stopped growing. Economists say that’s largely because consumers aren’t buying enough.

Federal spending cuts will inevitably throw more people out of work. And jobless workers and their families don’t go on shopping sprees. Nor others who feel justifiably anxious about future paychecks.

To make matters worse, the deal doesn’t provide for an extension of long-term unemployment benefits — something many hoped the White House could get into the package. A top-rated stimulus left for another, doubtful day. A growing gap in the safety net meanwhile.

The deal is not as bad as it could have been because the first round of cuts will be small, relative to the total deficit reduction targets. Also not so bad because a significant portion will have to come from defense — meaning that programs for low and moderate-income people won’t bear the entire brunt.

It’s a bad deal because it puts these programs at high risk.

Congress has to come up with about $900 billion in savings and then an additional $1.5 trillion.

That second target will almost certainly mean deeper cuts in non-defense spending of the kind Congress must approve on an annual basis, e.g., aid to public education, job training, targeted nutrition programs, or big cuts in mandatory spending for entitlements like Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps.

The deal is not so bad because the programs for seniors and low-income people of all ages would be protected from the automatic spending cuts that will kick in if Congress doesn’t act. Well, almost. Medicare provider rates would be cut, but benefits couldn’t be.

Last but not least, the deal is not so bad because the alternative would have been no hike in the debt ceiling at all.

No one knows what this would have meant for our economy and all of us hapless spectators. Surely a spike in unemployment and a halt to monthly disbursements for veterans’ benefits, Social Security, food stamps and the like.

Either that or a Constitutional crisis if the President decided, as some advised, to just direct Treasury to pay our government’s bills anyway. Hard to believe our floundering economy wouldn’t have totally tanked.

A good bit of the Monday morning quarterbacking has involved what the President could have done to get the debt ceiling raised without such collateral damage.

He’s roundly faulted for not being tough enough. I myself have felt frustrated to see him shift so far to the right that he would actually, as in the White House statement, laud a rollback in non-defense discretionary spending to a level last seen under President Eisenhower.

But I’m inclined to agree with former White House economist Jared Bernstein’s view that “lousy negotiating skills” had little to do with the outcome.

The President and Democrats in Congress had to deal with the fact that a significant number of House Republicans were willing — some even eager — to see the economy plunge off a cliff.

There are times when you’ve got to pay the ransom to save the hostage. I think this was one of them.

I take some comfort in knowing that whatever dreadful deficit reduction plan this Congress passes can be undone by future Congresses.

In short, we live to fight another day. And fight we truly must.

Dark Deficit Clouds Over DC

July 29, 2011

I’m following — some would say obsessively — the byzantine maneuvers on Capitol Hill. Wasn’t going to write about them, but can’t stay focused on anything else.

Bills passed in the House that can’t pass in the Senate. Bills offered in the House that can’t pass there because some Republican members think they’re not extreme enough.

I’m gripped by suspense. Will Congress raise the debt ceiling before the drop-dead date? What will happen if it doesn’t? What will happen if it does, but only for a short period of time? Will the President follow through on his almost-but-not-quite veto threat?

And I’m profoundly disheartened because whatever deal gets passed — and I’m pretty certain one will be — will do grave damage to low and moderate-income Americans.

Many economists — not all of them liberals — say that spending cuts should wait until the economy is growing at a healthier pace. Say that won’t happen until the unemployment rate drops to something closer to normal because, needless to say, jobless people and their families don’t buy more than they absolutely have to.

Yet all the deficit reduction plans afloat would cut spending next year below the already-cut levels in the continuing resolution that’s the substitute for a regular budget now.

And none of them would shield safety net programs that get their funding from annual appropriations.

These programs, recall, don’t just protect poor people from destitution. They also create and preserve jobs — both directly in the agencies that administer them and indirectly because they give beneficiaries some spending power.

Nobody knows what all this will mean for the District of Columbia because nobody knows how either the crisis or the solution will play out. But we can make some educated guesses.

The Chief Financial Officer has warned of short-term financing troubles if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Also of longer-term constraints from what I guess he foresees as losses of federal funds due to cuts in Medicaid and other federal programs, e.g., aid to public education.

He expresses worries about a bond downgrade due to lack of ready cash and impacts on revenues the District gains because the federal government is headquartered here.

There could, however, be other impacts. If interest on Treasury bonds rises because they’re no longer viewed as 100% safe, interest on other new bond issuances will rise. Interest on loans in the private sector too.

Include here not only financing for development projects, but home mortgages, car loans, higher education loans and plastic debt. Hardly a stimulus to local consumer spending.

And what about recovery in our anemic job market? The National Employment Law Project gives us a partial answer.

A fact sheet it’s not yet posted provides state-by-state (and District) figures for jobs lost or gained since the recession began, plus new jobs that would have to be created to accommodate growth in the working-age population.

The District, it shows, would have to gain 30,100 jobs just to get back to where we were in December 2007.

How can we possibly get anywhere near this number when federal spending cuts will mean widespread job losses?

We’ve got residents working in federal agencies, in local companies that provide them with contract services, in District agencies that depend in part on federal funds, in the organizations they contract with and in a large number of for-profit businesses that grow, shrink or die on the basis of consumer spending.

All vulnerable to layoffs as the federal budget cuts unroll. More certain hardships for our most vulnerable neighbors too.

I don’t recall when I’ve ever felt so anxious about our community — and our country. And I’ve been watching federal policymaking for a long time.