What Do Our Federal Income Taxes Pay For?

April 24, 2017

We who didn’t request an extension (gloat) have filed our federal income tax returns. There’s a lot of chatter about where our taxpayer dollars go — even a Congressman who tells his constituents that they don’t pay his salary.

We do, of course. But more generally, what do we pay for? The National Priorities Project answers again this year. So I put what I owed into its online tool and converted the dollars into shares, since these would be the same for everyone.

Here’s what I learned.

The same shares would be true for everyone who owed income taxes. Only the actual dollars would differ.

The single largest share of my income taxes went for healthcare programs29%. About 80% of this helped pay for Medicaid and Medicare (one of its three funding streams).

Next largest share to the military — roughly 24%. Only about 20% of this went for personnel costs of any sort.

NPP also itemizes, for the interested, what the Pentagon pays for nuclear weapons and to Lockheed Martin, whose trouble-plagued F-35 fighter plane has cost us nearly $4 billion. An email from NPP tells me that we pay over six times more to Lockheed than what we spend on all foreign aid.

Third share went for interest on the debt — 13%. You may recall that Congressional Republicans used the government’s urgent need to borrow more so it could pay what it owed as a lever to force down spending through sequestration and the budget caps. And that they later actually shut down the government in hopes of defunding Obamacare.

Doubtful they’ll access their tax receipts. But the bill that simply suspended the debt ceiling expired a little over a month ago. And some are warning of another skirmish.

My fourth largest share paid for unemployment and labor programs — 7.5%, presumably everything federal agencies spend to get people into — or back into—the workforce.

This same share supports what the Labor Department contributes to unemployment insurance benefits when times are especially hard and the rules it issues and enforces to protect workers from workplace health hazards and wage theft. The latter now include updated overtime pay requirements, but may no longer, coming sometime next year.

Then veterans benefits — about 6%. This includes, among other things, payments veterans receive when they’re disabled while serving, the GI bill, home loans and pensions for low-income surviving spouses. Most of the rest of this share goes to the problem-riddled Veterans Health Administration.

Next come food and agriculture — nearly 5%. Here’s where we find, among other things, SNAP (the food stamp program) and the Agriculture Department’s other nutrition aid programs.

Also, in an altogether different mode, the subsidies Congress gives to farmers — mostly big agribusinesses — to cushion them against price drops, insure them against other business risks and more.

Government next — 4.2%. NPP breaks out only three pieces, all enforcement — and two clearly aimed at ramped-up actions against undocumented immigrants and would-be’s.

But we’ve got to assume, I think, that this line item includes spending for all non-military personnel and activities, including Congress members’ salaries — $174,000 this year, plus benefits.

Transportation gets a 3.2% share. Everything the Transportation Department does gets some share of this share. including controlling air traffic and, as all flyers know, vigilantly trying to keep us from hijacking or blowing up planes.

Education gets a 2.8% share, according to NPP’s analysis. I’d put it at 3.2% because NPP classifies Head Start and related programs as community spending.

It’s true that Head Start and Early Head Start for younger kids do more than ready them for kindergarten, e.g. screen them for health and developmental problems, link families to needed services. But their primary aim is starting low-income children off on as level a playing field as possible.

Wherever you put it, Head Start’s share is far from the largest NPP breaks out. That distinction goes to Pell grants, work-study and other forms of federal aid for lower-income college students. These rolled together receive a larger share than federal aid to elementary and secondary schools — 35 %, as compared to 27%.

And I’d be remiss not to note that the National Endowment for the Arts, which Trump wants to eliminate, gets less than .002% of education’s share, as NPP calculates it — and roughly a tenth of that for everything our federal government uses our income tax dollars for.

Shifting Head Start and EHS, as I have, leaves housing and community with a 1.7%, rather than a 2.1% share.

Here we have everything the Department of Housing and Urban Development spends to help make housing affordable for lower-income people, shelter and temporarily house those who are homeless and make lower-income neighborhoods better places to live, e.g., by attracting businesses and thus job opportunities, providing needed services.

The money goes to local communities as grants. The largest of these is the Community Development Block Grant — another program on the Trump hit list because it’s “not well-targeted to the poorest populations and “has not demonstrated results.”

Followers already know what I — and many others — think of that line of argument.

Energy and environment get a 1.6% share of our income taxes. Seems it’s likely to shrink to an even smaller fraction, what with Trump’s seeking a 31% cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget, crippling its ability to fulfill its legal responsibilities for protecting us from range of environmental health hazards, including climate change.

Lastly, we have, in rank order international affairs and science. These together get about 2.8% of the total.

Say you don’t like the way the budget apportions your federal income tax dollars. NPP has a tool that lets you reallocate them — and gives you trade-offs.

These are mostly shifts from the $528.5 billion Defense Department budget, which NPP has long viewed as excessive. Interesting to see what even small nicks could do for lower-income people.


No Proof Trump-Targeted Programs Work?

April 6, 2017

Congress set in motion a sensible response to the incessant claims from the right that anti-poverty programs don’t work.

It passed a bill that creates an expert commission to review federal program data and make recommendations for using it to support program evaluations and improvements based on results.

Now we’ve got justifications for Trump’s budget that fly in its face — specifically that certain programs that serve low-income people’s needs should cease to exist right now because we don’t have enough proof they work.

The Community Development Block Grant would end because it’s “not well targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

Communities use CDBG funds to meet various needs. That’s what a flexible block grant is supposed let them do. Some unknown number support Meals on Wheels. They collectively supplied prepared meals for more than 2.4 million homebound seniors last year.

The OMB Director says that Meals on Wheels “sounds great,” but we can’t keep giving states money for “programs that don’t work.”

We do, in fact, have some research showing Meals on Wheels does—probably behind his ken. In any event, he brushes off the lost benefits by donning the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

The Trump budget would also zero-fund grants to local Community Learning Centers, which channel them to afterschool programs, especially in high-poverty, low-performing schools.

The director says more or less the same about them. “There’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re .. helping kids do better in school.” Again, we’ve got some evidence they do, though limited. Not, one infers, demonstrable enough to make the administration even pause.

The budget would also eliminate the Low Income Home Heating and Energy Assistance Program because it’s among the “lower-impact” programs and “unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes.”

Now, we truly don’t want to fund programs that have no positive or only minimal effects. On the other hand, measuring a program’s effects by the so-called gold standard, i.e., a multi-year comparison of impacts on those who received benefits or services and a control group that didn’t, is a costly business — and still not conclusive.

One need only look at the gold-standard Head Start impact studies. The second, which tracked recent participants through the third grade found that gains didn’t last.

But when research teams at the Brookings Institution and UCLA looked instead at the long term, they found that the children fared better in significant ways

The real issue here, however, is what evidentiary standard a program has to meet for it to be considered funding-worthy.

Consider LIHEAP. It’s done less than it might for quite awhile because it’s been under-funded — and increasingly so. Its appropriations were small, even before the Budget Control Act capped spending on non-defense programs — just $5.1 billion in 2010. Less ever since.

At the same time, home heating costs have increased, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. So states, which get shares of the funding as block grant, have had to cut back on the number of low-income households whose home energy costs they subsidize and by how much.

The program nevertheless keeps the heat on for nearly 6.1 million poor households. Seventy percent are especially vulnerable, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association states, protesting what Trump intends.

Now, common sense tells us that that having heat in the winter averts new or aggravated illnesses due directly to the cold — even death, since roughly a quarter of LIHEAP households include a member who uses electrically-powered.medical equipment.

Bills paid for electricity also prevent injuries, since rooms can be lighted at night and food poisoning by keeping refrigerators running and stoves operating. (This last would be true of natural gas as well, of course.)

Whatever the energy source, the assistance LIHEAP provides can prevent homelessness and other hardships, e.g., food insecurity, because low-income households otherwise have to spend far more on home energy than the less cash-strapped—16%, as compared to 4%, according to findings when energy costs were lower.

Do we really need to find out what happened to another similar group of people who had their utilities cut off and couldn’t scrape up the money to get them turned back on?

It would be bad enough if the Trump administration were holding programs to an unreasonable standard — or merely ignorant of research-based evidence that they work.

But when it says it won’t fund programs without proof of that, it’s putting a self-serving, deceptive gloss on decisions made to cut spending on safety net and other non-defense programs.

How do we know? Well, Trump is bound and determined to fund private school vouchers. Do we have evidence of their outcomes? We do, to some extent, each focused exclusively on one state’s voucher program, plus the District of Columbia’s.

The earliest two found positive effects, e.g. higher graduation rates and, in the District, higher reading, but not math scores.

On the other hand, three of the four most recent, including one financed by a pro-voucher institute found that children in voucher programs scored lower in both reading and math than children in public schools. The fourth found no effect, as measured by graduates going on to college.

A foolish consistency isn’t always the hobgoblin of little minds. In this case, it’s minds of greater capacity engaging in inconsistency to justify their policy preferences — hoping futilely that no one will challenge their alternative facts.


What Trump Could and Wants to Do to Disadvantage Disadvantaged Kids

April 3, 2017

Having canvassed the big problems with public funding for private school vouchers, I’ll turn to what I’ll call some backdoor maneuvers, plus other ways Trump’s budget would further disadvantage disadvantaged kids..

Backdoor Federal Funding for Private School Choice

Trump wouldn’t have to have to put all federal funding for private school enrollment into the spending part of his budget. He could propose tax credits, taking a leaf from state playbooks. Like all other credits, that’s spending through the tax code.

But it doesn’t seem to grow the government — a big bad from the right-wing perspective, including Trump’s, of course.

In fact, as the Tax Policy Center says, it seems to do the opposite, without really doing so. In this case, the revenues lost could instead be plowed into programs to foster educational equality.

Four states award tax credits to parents for private schools tuition—and two of these for other expenses also. The credits, of course, benefit only parents who owe state taxes. Federal tax credits would do the same.

And as we know from former Presidential candidate Romney’s gaffe, many lower-income people don’t owe federal income taxes. But, as I early said, the voucher system tilts toward well-off families.

Seventeen states offer tax credits to organizations that donate money for scholarships to private schools, including those operated by religious organizations.

This is a clever way of getting around what many view as a breach of the First Amendment prohibition against any law establishing a religion, including one that promotes it.

The Supreme Court nonetheless let Arizona’s tax credits stand, but the narrow majority based its decision on legal technicality, not the substantive complaint.

The federal tax code already allows filers to take such donations as deductions, if the money goes to a non-profit. But Trump could jawbone prospective donors, dangle promises, celebrate the persuaded, etc. Very much in his dealmaker mode.

Backdoor School Choice in the Budget

Trump’s budget blueprint includes $1 billion more for Title I of the Education Act — now named the Every Child Succeeds Act.

The blueprint says it’s “dedicated to encouraging districts to adopt a system … that enables Federal, State and local funding to follow the student to the school of his or her choice.”

This would fundamentally undermine the purpose of Title I and the way all versions have achieved it. As things stand now, basic grant funds go to schools districts based on the percent of poor and near-poor children they have.

So they help provide equal educational opportunity — in part because it costs more to educate poor children and in part because public schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less to spend. Like all public schools, they’re funded largely through property taxes, rFederal grants and state funding notwithstanding.

Trump would shift funds from high-poverty schools by having a student’s portion go to any publicly-funded school s/he enrolled in, including one a wealthy community. That much less then for a school that needs it most—and for the children left behind.

Title I portability, as it’s called, was a controversial issue during the effort to revise No Child Left Behind. In the interests of bipartisanship — and one would like to think, commitment to the fundamental purpose of Title I —  members of the responsible Senate committee agreed not to include it.

At the time, the National Coalition for Public Education warned that proposals like Trump’s version portability were intended to make initiating private school vouchers easier. No reason, I think, to view Trump’s differently, despite his first relatively low-cost stab.

Other Disadvantages for Disadvantaged Kids

The Trump budget would, among other things, eliminate funding for after-school programs — a larger cut than the extra he’d commit to Title I.

The programs vary a lot, but as a whole they shore up students’ academic skills, e.g., by pairing them with tutors, increase their interest in learning by engaging them in intriguing activities like computer coding.

They also foster their health through team sports, other physical exercise and free or nearly-free snacks, nutritionally balanced according to guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which subsidizes them. For some children, it’s the last food they’ll get for the day.

And on top of all this, they provide free, supervised care so that parents can work after the school closing bell rings. The alternative, would cost, on average, $67 a week  — and a whole lot more in some states.

But even the average would cost a parent with two school-age kids more than she’d earn at the federal minimum wage rate. So she’d forfeit the pay — another way this piece of Trump’s budget would disadvantage disadvantaged kids.

Also proposed for zero-funding is a program that helps fund “the quality and effectiveness” of teachers and principals and “provide low-income and minority students greater access to them.”

While not only for teachers in high-poverty schools, ESSA gives heavier weight to districts with these schools than its predecessor, as well it should. Recent studies confirm what many have said for a long time.

By all major measure of teacher quality, e.g., teacher experience, scores on licensing exams, the least qualified teachers are the most likely to have the responsibility for educating students disadvantaged by poverty and/or color.

So far as “access” is concerned, it seems to mean reducing class size, judging from how school districts used their recent grants. That, of course, enables teachers to give individual kids more attention, which means, among other things, that they pay attention instead of acting up in the back of the room.

Overly-large classes may help account for the teacher experience quality gap. Teachers in high-poverty schools get frustrated because they’ve got too many kids to teach, especially given the disadvantages they bring to the classroom, e.g., fewer or no books at home, fewer words heard, stress, hunger.

So the teachers find other professional opportunities or they transfer to a better-off school — a privilege they gain with seniority that a higher percent recently took advantage of than teachers in low-poverty schools.

Both avenues out leave openings that seem likely to be filled by a new cohort of less-qualified teachers. We thus have still another way that low-income and other disadvantaged students would lose out if the Trump budget prevails.

More to Come?

The blueprint, of course, is merely a preview. The Education Department would lose $9.2 billion — 13.5% less than what it has today, when the spending caps in the Budget Control Act have constricted funding.

So we’re sure to see more and larger cuts when he’s signed off on a full-fledged proposed budget. And you can bet they’ll fall heaviest, directly and indirectly, on poor and near-poor students.


What’s Wrong With “School Choice” Vouchers?

March 30, 2017

School choice is back in the news, thanks to Trump’s choice of school choice advocate — some would say zealot — and more, recently his budget plan. The hot-button part is federally-funded support for parents to send their children to private schools.

Most people understand this to mean vouchers, though we might see other proposals as well. This is one of the things I learned from a webcasted speech and panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress.

Those who know CAP know the event aimed to expose the problems with vouchers. And it did — well enough, I think, to move anyone on the fence off to the opposition side.

Senator Patty Murray, the most senior Democrat on the HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee led off by summarizing a lengthy letter she’d just sent to colleagues. The panelists filled in with supporting research and those other proposals we might see.

Big takeaways here. A followup soon on another way Trump might try to fund private school choice, plus some further threats targeted specifically high-poverty schools and their students.

Accountability and Transparency

The Every Child Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, gives states more flexibility in how they assess students’ mastery of three basic skill and knowledge areas — reading/language arts, math and science.

They’ve got flexibility they didn’t have to set standards for assessing schools, though they must include those test scores and, for high schools, graduation rates. They’ve also got more flexibility in what to do about schools that consistently don’t measure up.

But test at least those basic skills they must, at the same grade-level intervals and to virtually all the students in those grades.

And both they and school districts must still publicly report, among other things, the tests results broken out, e.g., by race-ethnicity, with a disability, whether disadvantaged by living in poverty or near-poverty.

They must also now report other relevant data, e.g., broken-out suspension and expulsion rates, percent and number of teachers who lack experience and/or the customary formal credentials.

ESSA is the latest version of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. So it applies only to state education agencies and to schools districts they distribute their share of federal funds to.

Private schools don’t get any So they can test students whenever and however choose — or not at all. They can inform parents or not. Even if they do, parents have no reliable way to know whether their children are learning more or less than they would in a regular public or charter school.

Quality Education

The freedom private schools have from learning standards extends to staffing choices. They don’t have to hire only teachers who have state teaching credentials.

State requirements differ, but they include a four-year college degree, including courses in education (or a major for elementary school) and a major or minor in a subject they’ll teach.

And only about half of the 20 voucher programs that the General Accountability Office surveyed had any sort of accreditation from a state or other established quality assurance organization.

What this means is that students may graduate, but discover they can’t get into college without completing a GED. Or, as in a case Murray’s letter cites, can’t transfer to the next grade level in a public school.

Equal Education Guarantees

All regular public and publicly-funded charter schools must comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act — a federal law that requires them to ensure that every disabled child has a free and individually-appropriate education.

It’s, as Murray’s letter says, basically a civil rights law, since it expands and spells out in detail how schools must ensure the equal educational opportunity guarantee in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Private schools don’t have to comply with IDEA, except those in the District of Columbia that enroll students with vouchers because they’re federally-funded — another unwanted intervention in local policymaking and mostly a channel of support to religious schools.

They would nationwide if federally-funded, as Trump’s budget envisions and his Secretary of Education dearly wants, notwithstanding her earlier view that IDEA requirements would “be best left to states.”

But what we know about private schools that enroll students with state-funded vouchers should, at the very least, make us suspicious. Private schools have, for example, rejected children with vouchers because of disabilities — or deterred parents from enrolling them.

Not long ago, only a minuscule fraction of children with disabilities were enrolled through vouchers in Wisconsin’s private voucher schools. And the schools warned they’d not provide the level of services IDEA requires.

In Florida, parents of children with scholarships exclusively for those with disabilities must sign away all their IDEA rights.

Federally-funded vouchers would in theory, if not in practice at the very least give children with disabilities an education more appropriate for them than some state programs. But that wouldn’t resolve the equality issues.

Title IX expressly exempts religious schools from complying with its prohibition against sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs so far as that would run up against their tenets.

This means, among other things, that they can have sex-segregated curricula based on based on their beliefs about gender roles, different conduct codes and fewer or no athletic opportunities geared to women students’ interests and abilities. They can also, of course, rampantly discriminate against LGBT students.

Other Inequities

Vouchers won’t make private schools affordable for lower-income parents unless they’re virtually budget-busters.

State-funded voucher programs were worth, on average, $2,000–$5,000 last year. Private school tuition alone averaged about twice the higher range of this average. And then come books, uniforms and probably other costs.

So vouchers don’t truly mean choice for parents who can’t substantially supplement them. On the contrary, studies of voucher programs in four states found that most of the money went to parents who already had enough to have their kids in private schools.

Finally, they’re worthless for kids in many rural communities, where even the nearest public school is often far away—and a private school even further.

But the public schools provide transportation. They’ll have less money to spend for that, as well as other things if the federal government funds vouchers. The add-on in Trump’s budget doesn’t change this. Without it, there’d be more money for public schools.


Policy Changes Could Shrink the Affordable Housing Gap, But Trump Budget Likely to Worsen It

March 15, 2017

Picking up where I left off on the acute shortage of housing for the lowest-income renters. As I said, we’ve got policy remedies, but also threats. Those seem more imminent since the Washington Post reported a leaked preview of Trump’s proposed budget.

A Range of Policy Remedies

More Financing for Affordable Housing. The National Low Income Housing, as you might expect, focuses on the housing, rather than the income side of the equation. Within this broad spectrum, it’s zeroed in, though not exclusively on building the National Housing Trust Fund.

First, it calls for legislative changes that would significantly increase revenues that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could transfer to the Fund, which at long last got some money last year — a down payment, of sorts, on its promise.

Second, NLICH would have the mortgage interest deduction cut in half, to $500,000 and the additional tax revenues shifted into the Fund.

These two measures — if swiftly enacted and gradually phased in — would generate an estimated $21.3 billion over the first 10 years, NLIHC says, using in part a study by the Tax Policy Center. Millions more then to states and the District of Columbia.

They can use their Trust Fund shares to help finance a range of activities that preserve, create, upgrade and otherwise make available more affordable housing.

All but 10% must go to rental housing and at least 75% of that for the benefit of extremely low income households, i.e., those with incomes no more than 30% of the median for the area they live in.

More Opportunity to Increase Housing Assistance. Even with a beefed-up Trust Fund, we’d still need more funding for Housing Choice vouchers — both project-based, i.e., those that subsidize rents for specific units, and tenant-based, i.e., those that enable recipients to rent at market-based rates, while still paying only 30% of their income.

Funding for these vouchers got whacked by the 2013 across-the-board cuts. The annual caps on appropriations now leave a lot of discretion to the top-level decision-makers in Congress — and even to majorities in the subcommittees.

The caps have nevertheless surely played a role in severely limiting the reach of not only Housing Choice vouchers, but available public housing units and those funded by several programs that are smaller and more specifically targeted, e.g., for the elderly, for people with disabilities.

The Campaign for Housing and Community Development — a substantial, broad-based coalition — has just called on Congress to lift the originally-mandated caps, which will otherwise again become effective for the next fiscal year’s budget.

Very importantly, it calls for parity, unlike the lopsided defense increase/non-defense decrease we’re likely to see in Trump’s proposed budget, of which more below.

New Renters Credit. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has floated a proposal that would get around the caps — a renters credit. Not, you note, technically federal spending, because spending through the tax code doesn’t count.

The credit would work somewhat like the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in that states would get a certain number of the credits and then parcel them out to expand housing affordable for low-income people.

The new credit could go to both developers and owners and would subsidize rents like the Housing Choice vouchers, limiting what tenants pay to 30% of their income.

The difference here is that the developers and/or owners would get the difference as a tax reduction, rather than a direct payment from a public housing authority. And the big difference from the LIHT is that it would make units available for only the lowest-income households.

Like the NILHC mortgage tax interest reduction, the renters credit would shift the balance in current federal policies from housing assistance for high-income homeowners to the lowest-income renters and prospective renters.

The mortgage interest deduction, the related property tax deduction and some other tax preferences recently saved the highest-income households a total of more than $130 billion, according to the Center’s estimates.

All rental assistance was somewhere around $55 billion — less than the mortgage interest deduction alone.

Threats on the Horizon

We don’t know yet exactly what Trump will propose for next fiscal year’s budget, but he’s said it will increase defense spending by $54 billion. Not, however, so as to increase the deficit. He seems intent on doing that in other ways.

His forthcoming budget will offset the significant breach in the defense spending cap by reducing spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations. How he’ll apportion the cuts remains to be seen.

But the Washington Post reports that “preliminary budget documents,” probably the marks that the Office of Management of Budget passes down to federal agencies, call for more than $6 billion in cuts to Housing and Urban Development programs — roughly 14% of the insufficient amount they get now.

The work-in-progress budget would level-fund rental assistance programs, the Post says. This would not preserve the number of vouchers in current use because they cost more annually to plug gaps between what renters pay and landlords’ permissible rental charges, which HUD bases on the costs of  modest units on the open market.

Both the Center and NLIHC say that about 200,000 vouchers would effectively vanish, leaving more low-income renters with the huge cost burdens many already bear — or homeless.

Public housing would take big hits. The capital fund would lose about $1.3 billion or more than 31%* — this when public housing has major repair/rehabilitation needs that now total nearly $40 billion, NLIHC says.

The cut, on top of years of under-funding would mean the loss of even more public housing units — more than half of which provide affordable units, presumably with accommodations hard to find on the open market, for seniors and younger people with disabilities.

The budget document also cuts funding for operating public housing by $600 million. This funding stream subsidizes not only administrative activities like overseeing buildings and renting vacating units, but routine maintenance. Neglect that and you’ve got a capital need, as all of us housed people know

The prospective budget would also blow away a flexible block grant that densely-populated communities can use to provide affordable housing and cuts two others, including one helps fund improvements in rundown subsidized housing and surrounding neighborhoods.

A fourth — the Native American Housing Block Grant—would be cut by more than 20%, leaving housing on some reservations severely over-crowded and without such basics as hot and cold running water and/or toilets.

In not-so-short, billions more for defense, billions less for poor and near-poor people who urgently need affordable housing — like, for example, what the First Lady’s living in, rent-free.

* The Center, which links to the Post report, says the capital fund cut is about $2 billion.


Perilous Time for DC to Trigger More Tax Giveaways

January 30, 2017

We’re into the budget season here in the District of Columbia. The Bowser administration is busy preparing its proposal, aiming to send it to the Council in early April. That will trigger hearings, then votes — first by the committees responsible for the major budget areas and then by the Council as a whole.

Budgets are always somewhat of a crap shoot because officials don’t know how exactly how much the District will collect in taxes and fees.

More importantly, they don’t how much the District will receive from the federal government and for what. But they have to factor some figure in for roughly a quarter of what the District will have to spend.

That figure is much more iffy this year for several related reasons. First, we’ve got a new President — and one that’s set on making major changes that would have both direct and indirect effects on the District’s budget.

Second, it’s doubtful anyone, except maybe insiders will know what’s in his final proposed budget before the Mayor finishes hers. The problem here is that District agencies base their budget input in part on the prospective budgets of the agencies from which they regularly receive grants.

The estimates are always just ballparks, of course. Congress can — and often does — change proposed spending levels. Or makes no changes in what it’s currently approved — something it often does, though rarely for all federal budget areas and the entire fiscal year.

But uncertainty this year will be extraordinarily high. Would be even without Trump’s threat to withhold grants from cities that don’t participate in the federal government’s immigrant deportation efforts.

The Hill reports that the administration aims to send “an initial budget proposal” to Congress long about the second week in March, but that it’s likely to run into big-time flak from some Congressional Republicans, especially in the Senate.

Can’t count on easy sailing through the House either, especially if it reflects, as rumored, either or both the Heritage Foundation’s radical downsizing blueprint and Trump’s promise to invest $1 trillion in infrastructure over the next 10 years.

Well, Congress has to do something by the end of April to prevent a government shutdown. But what that bill will look like is anybody’s guess.

What’s lots more certain are cuts to a range of non-defense programs — not only those that depend on annual spending decisions, but like as not Medicaid. But nobody can know for certain which, how much and when they’ll set in.

And nobody knows how the economy will fare. Dire warnings of a recession — in part, just because it’s time for one, though some economists also cite policies Trump has promised, e.g., new trade barriers.

As always, a recession will drive down local tax revenues, while increasing needs (and eligibility) for safety net programs that the District funds in whole or in part.

One would think that District policymakers would want to make extra sure that the ongoing revenue stream, plus money in savings accounts will cover the community’s critical needs — or at the very least, minimize the need for cuts.

Yet District law requires specified tax cuts whenever projected revenues exceed those projected for the prior fiscal year — this no matter what a longer-term forecast might indicate or what seems likely on Capitol Hill.

As a practical matter, this means that the District could give away millions of dollars — and not just for a single year, but for good, unless the law is changed.

As I’ve said before, Councilmembers didn’t carefully consider the automatically triggered tax cuts before agreeing to approve them.

The Chairman tucked them into the Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Support Act, the package of legislation needed to make existing laws consistent with the budget proper, shortly before the first required vote.

How Councilmembers would have voted after public hearings, written testimony and committee discussions of the triggers is an open question. But that was then, and this now — a very different now from several years ago.

Different not only in ominous prospects for federal funding, but in pressing needs that call for more local funds. They’re mostly not brand new, but more urgent, for various reasons.

They include a remedy for the also hastily-passed rigid time limit on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Also high on the list are increased investments in affordable housing for the lowest-income residents, both those who are homeless now and those at high risk because they’re paying at least half their income for rent.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has cited some others, e.g., more for public schools due to increased enrollment and rising costs, improvements in our aged, hazardous Metro system.

DCFPI and other local advocacy organizations earlier recommended a pause in the triggered tax cuts. It’s surely high time the Mayor and Council do that and set the revenues saved aside to help offset federal spending cuts the upcoming budget didn’t account for.

Didn’t, as I said, because it couldn’t. And sadly, neither the District nor any state can fully offset what they could lose in federal funds.

The DC auditor reports that just the “rollback” of the Medicaid expansion piece of the Affordable Care Act, i.e., the enhanced federal match for newly-eligible beneficiaries, would cost the District $563 million next fiscal year alone.

Just one of many signs that the District needs every penny it now collects in fees and taxes.


First We Kill All the Lawyers for Poor People (Or As Many As We Can)

January 26, 2017

Old story, new chapter. We don’t have enough lawyers to give low-income people an even playing field in non-criminal cases that will have major consequences for their lives. (Not enough for criminal cases either, but that’s a separate story.)

Now we’ve reasons to expect that our newly-elected President will move to deny millions of low-income people free professional legal advice and representation by wiping out the Legal Services Corporation—the single largest source of funding for them.

How the Legal Services Corporation Fits Into the Anti-Poverty Effort

LCS has its roots in the War on Poverty, as one of many initiatives to afford poor people economic opportunities by delivering funds to local organizations. It became an independent, nonprofit corporation during the Nixon administration.

Its purpose, the law says, is to “provide legal assistance to those who face an economic barrier to adequate legal counsel” because that “will serve best the ends of justice and assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons.”

The Corporation ran into trouble when President Reagan took office, bringing with him hostilities from his time as California’s governor. But it survived and recovered lost funding.

During the Clinton administration, however, Congressional Republicans took out after it. And Clinton agreed to new limits on what it could do and for whom as part of the bargain that ended welfare as we knew it.

For this reason, plus funding limits LSC-funded organizations are properly part of a more comprehensive and diverse informal system that helps poor and near-poor people when they need, but can’t afford legal advice and/or representation.

But they’re an essential part. LSC provides financial support to 134 grantees. Collectively, they have somewhat over 800 offices throughout the country. That meant nearly 4,600 lawyers available to help people with incomes no greater than 125% of the federal poverty line in 2015.

Lawyers in LSC-funded organizations handle a range of matters. The two most common types are family matters, e.g., custody cases, domestic violence, and housing issues, e.g., foreclosures, threatened evictions. They also, among other things, help clients secure the benefits they’re entitled to.

Yet they can’t help nearly as many people as seek their aid. They turn away half or more, the Corporation says. And these are only people who come to them and ask—not those who’ve heard it’s probably futile.

These facts and figures all argue, as the Corporation did, for a larger appropriation. What it’s received in the last two years is less in real-dollars than it had before the recession set in, though the number of people whose incomes make them eligible has significantly increased.

A funding increase could help reduce homelessness—and with it, poverty, as Matthew Desmond’s justly-celebrated Evicted shows.

An increase might be even a life-or-death matter, since LSC-funded attorneys represent clients in domestic violence cases. (Lest you think that grants awarded under the Violence Against Women Act would suffice, they too reportedly could be zeroed out.)

Why the Concern for the Corporation

Last week, The Hill reported that Trump transition team staff had been meeting with career White House staff to develop a plan for reducing the federal budget. And by a whole lot — $10.5 trillion in the first 10 years.

This is even larger than what the House Republican Study Committee came up with, but couldn’t get a vote on.

The Trump team reportedly is relying on a budget blueprint the far-right Heritage Foundation published last year. It would have balanced this year’s budget within seven years, while cutting taxes by $1.3 trillion over ten—this without touching the core of defense.

To get there, it would eliminate a host of programs—not only the LCS and VAWA grants, but others that “assist in improving opportunities for low-income persons,” e.g., the job training programs funded under the Work Innovations and Opportunity Act.

It would phase out Head Start. And it would cut the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division by a third because it’s sought to protect voting rights and has “filed abusive lawsuits intended to enforce progressive social ideology in areas ranging from public hiring to public education.”

It would also ensure that we couldn’t measure the impacts so well because it would eliminate funding for the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure — a long-standing target of the Heritage Foundation.

Now, The Hill report may prove nothing but a gift to other news media, which need a constant supply of new angles for Trump stories—and for bloggers of the policy sort. Who knows what Trump will do? He himself often seems not to know.

But the Legal Services Corporation has proved vulnerable in the past — most of all when the lawyers it funds effectively champion the interests of the constituency they’re supposed to serve.

So this inkling of an attack on yet another program to further economic and social justice should, I think, serve as an early warning.