House Republicans Give New Meaning To “Women And Children First”

June 17, 2011

House Republicans have decided that WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) must be cut to “restore the fiscal health of our nation.”

These words from the House Appropriations Committee’s report, which also assures us that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have sufficient funding for its core missions, including “helping the most needy in our domestic feeding programs.”

WIC currently serves nearly 9 million low-income pregnant women, infants, children under five and their mothers, provided that a health professional has found them to be “at nutritional risk,” e.g., because they’re anemic, underweight or not consuming enough of the right kinds of things for a healthy diet.

Mothers and children in these categories are eligible if their family income is at or below 185% of the federal poverty line. Those who participate — or have family members who participate — in certain other federally-funded benefits programs can be automatically eligible.

In some states, this apparently makes for some exceptions to the regular eligibility ceiling. The Appropriations Committee wants USDA to focus solely on “the neediest or the hardest hit by the economic downturn.” Forget about the just plain needy.

The committee’s report also says that the Secretary of Agriculture can supplement the appropriation, if necessary, by using funds left over from the current fiscal year, plus funds in a separate contingency account.

Seems to imply that there’ll be enough to serve everyone who’s eligible. Not so.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has crunched the numbers. It reports that, even when you factor in these additional funds, state WIC programs would have to turn away 200,000-350,000 low-income mothers and children.

Here in the District, 400-600 could lose out on the healthy foods and diverse preventive services that make WIC so important to the health and development of poor children in their critical early years.

The numerical ranges reflect uncertainties about food prices.

WIC participants get coupons or the equivalent to purchase certain amounts of specific foods and beverages. Their monthly allotments reflect what states have chosen from a federally-established food basket, which provides for different items in different quantities according to scientifically-determined needs.

So when costs of the items in the basket rise, per participant costs rise as well. Federal funding doesn’t.

Anyone who’s been to the grocery store lately knows that food prices have shot up. CBPP says that experts expect a further increase of at least 2% before the end of next fiscal year. Some think a 5% increase is likely. But who knows what droughts, floods, another spike in gas prices, etc. could mean?

We do know that the WIC cut would have no meaningful impact on the deficit. The continuing resolution that’s funding the federal government now provides only $6.73 billion for the program. The House has just voted to reduce next year’s funding to $6.05 billion.

Chump change “savings” in light of a deficit that would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 trillion next year, even under the House Republican’s radical budget plan.

And a true case of penny wise, pound foolish. Lots of research shows that participation in WIC reduces costly health problems and developmental delays.

USDA reports that every $1.00 spent on WIC has saved as much as $3.13 in health care costs during the first two months after an infant’s birth. Per dollar savings increased to about $3.50 over an 18 year period.

Looking at the issue from the other side, the Partnership for America’s Economic Success reviews a range of physical, mental, behavioral and academic problems linked to prenatal and early childhood food insecurity.

These are costly in economic as well as human terms. Consider not only the direct outlays for health care, special education and the like, but the long-term costs in lost productivity — and tax revenues.

But House Republicans aren’t really thinking in economic terms. They’re going after federal programs that don’t fit their ideological framework — with those they’ve shrewdly decided to call “welfare” high on the list.

If they were really concerned about promoting prosperity, they’d see WIC as a good investment. Really concerned about the deficit, they’d agree to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire.

Just one week of what these cuts give America’s millionaires could fund the year-long increase for WIC that the President requested and leave millions for other purposes.


Low-Income Energy Assistance Gets The Ax

February 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tough on whom?

Shared Opportunity, Economic Security In The Bull’s Eye On Capitol Hill

February 9, 2011

House Republicans have put their green eyeshades on. We’re told we should soon — at long last — have the specific cuts they propose to roll back federal spending.

As a first step, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has produced his mark for the continuing resolution Congress will have to pass in March to avert a government shutdown.

It would cut non-security discretionary spending by $32 billion below the Fiscal Year 2010 level — or $58 billion below President Obama’s proposed budget for the current fiscal year. (House Republicans are touting the latter figure, as if the proposed budget were the current spending level.)

Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has said he’ll save an additional $16 billion. He’s set spending levels for the subcommittees accordingly.

But they cover broad areas — in many cases, more than one Cabinet-level agency. So we still don’t know which programs will take the really big hits.

What we do know, thanks to a first-look brief by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is that a continuing resolution reflecting the Rogers directives would mean an overall 15.4% cut for non-security spending that’s not mandated by other legislation.

As Rogers has allocated the cut, the largest dollar-value loss would be in transportation/housing. Very ominous for affordable housing programs, I think.

The third largest is the broad area that includes public education, job training, health care and a wide range of benefits and services for low-income and disabled people. Spending here would be more than $6.5 billion below the Fiscal Year 2010 level and nearly $13.6 billion less than the President requested for this fiscal year.

While these deep cuts seem to pertain only to the continuing resolution, whatever passes in Congress is likely to become the baseline for another round of cuts as the Appropriations Committees get to work on the Fiscal Year 2012 budget the President will formally propose in about a week.

Meanwhile, potentially worse, bipartisan mischief is brewing in the Senate.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), joined by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and others has introduced a bill that would cap federal spending at 20.6% of the nation’s gross domestic product, i.e., the total value of goods and services produced in the U.S.

This, says CBPP, would force $4.5 trillion in spending reductions over the next 10 years — if not through the regular budget process, then through an automatic sequestration, i.e., spending cut, process that would disproportionately impact Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other mandatory programs that aid low-income people.

The Corker-McCaskill proposal is only one of several tacks Senators are taking to severely constrain spending without regard to potential impacts on our economy or the safety net that’s meant to keep low and moderate-income people from dire poverty.

Senator Mark Udall (D-CO) has said he’ll join Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) as cosponsor of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution — a bad old idea who’s time has come round again.

Basically, the amendment would mean that spending could not exceed revenues in any fiscal year — or about 20% of GDP, no matter what the revenue level.

So during a recession, the federal government would have to drastically reduce spending to accommodate the drop in GDP and the related drop in revenues. This, of course, would further depress private-sector business activity, boost job losses and so produce a further drop in revenues. A sort of automatic anti-stimulus, if you will.

The same could be said for Corker-McCaskill. Huffington Post columnist Robert Creamer explains why.

We often tend to focus on what’s closest to home. For us who live in the District, that’s the $600 million budget gap the Gray administration and DC Council will have to close — and thus threats to the local programs we care most about.

I suppose most residents in the 44 states that have projected shortfalls for the upcoming fiscal year are also riveted on the recent and impending harms to the programs they view as highest priorities.

These programs undoubtedly need the strongest, smartest support we can muster. But I think we need to recognize that developments on Capitol Hill are far greater threats than any state or local budget-balancing exercise.

They’re greater right now because virtually all key state and local programs depend in part on federal funding — education, health care, infrastructure, community development, etc. They’re greater in the long term because they’d lock in drastic spending cuts for the indefinite future.

If we just leave these federal budget issues to others, we’ll be left with damage that no state or local government can compensate for.

UPDATE: Shortly after I published this posting, Congressman Rogers issued a partial list of the cuts that will be part of the pending continuing resolution. The dollar values shown are derived from what President Obama proposed for the current fiscal year, not the spending levels in the CR that’s current funding the federal government.

Rogers says the Committee has “scoured every program to find real savings that are responsible and justifiable to the American people. Not all justifiable to all of us, I think.