The Obama administration projects a $1.5 trillion deficit for fiscal year 2012, which starts in October of this year, so there is little doubt that the federal government needs to do some slimming down. This effort, however, requires intelligence, precision, and care. Even the largest of tumors are excised with scalpels, not hatchets.
Unfortunately, that logic seems to have escaped Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his Republican colleagues in the House of Representatives. Last week, they passed $63 billion in budget cuts for the remainder of FY 2011—and no doubt will follow with similar cuts in FY 2012. That number may seem small relative to the overall budget—and indeed, it is—but the danger of those cuts lies in their concentration.
All savings are derived from cuts to “non-security discretionary spending,” which represents a majority of federal agencies but only a sliver of the budget. Further, the proposed cuts are advocated with little regard to their targets—no distinction is made between effective programs and failing programs, or programs that are vital to Americans and programs that can be done without.
The costs of such a blunt approach far outweigh the potential savings, and even worse, a disproportionate burden of those costs will be placed on the shoulders of our nation’s low-income, working-class, and minority citizens. Here are five groups most likely to be harmed by the Republicans’ proposal.
The House Republican plan to reduce the budget deficit targets our nation’s most vulnerable members: low-income and working-class individuals and families. Especially in an economic slump, these groups rely on government assistance simply to have basic human needs, such as food and housing, met at a minimal level.
Rental assistance for public housing would be slashed by more than $100 million. The Public Housing Capital Fund, which is allocated to keep subsidized housing clean, safe, and relatively up to date, would be cut by $1.07 billion. So called Section 202 funds, which help provide housing for the elderly, would face cuts of more than $500 million. Collectively, these budget cuts remove a necessary lifeline to America’s low-income residents and would for them make securing housing a much more arduous task.
Moreover, programs meant to ensure the health of children in low-income families would lose significant portions of their budget. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, would lose $758 million in funding despite the fact that it serves 45 percent of all infants born in the United States and has repeatedly shown to be a cost-effective program.
Making matters worse, Maternal and Child Health Services Block Grants would also be cut by $210 million, reducing the amount of educational materials, primary care, and immunizations distributed through the service.
These programs are needed to provide basic food, shelter, and health care to millions of Americans. Cutting these programs amounts more to an attack on the poor than an exercise in fiscal discipline; here, the costs of removing such programs far outweigh the benefits.
Communities of color
The income distribution of minorities in the United States suggests that policies affecting low-income communities will disproportionately affect those of color. In this respect, it should come as no surprise that many of the budget cuts to assistance programs in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be felt strongest by minority communities. But there is another, more insidious mechanism by which the continuing resolution is dangerous to people of color.
The continuing resolution guts the Environmental Protection Agency of a number of important authorities, without which it will be hard pressed to fulfill its mission of environmental protection and regulation. Specifically, the House Republican legislation forbids the expenditure of funds for the regulation of greenhouse gases and limits the EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Water Act.
To be sure, binding the authority of the EPA will negatively impact everyone—but the effects will be most pronounced in low-income minority neighborhoods, which are often situated near sites of pollution and environmental hazard. Because minority communities frequently lack the political capital to keep systems of environmental degradation at bay, they often have significantly higher levels of health problems resulting from pollution and contamination.
Massive cuts proposed for the Department of Education would severely harm the future of our nation’s pupils and impair efforts to create a better-educated, more innovative workforce. Seventeen million students in low-income schools who rely on Title I to help rectify educational disparities would be out of luck: Title I grants are slated to be cut by $693.5 billion under the House Republican resolution. Head Start, another program that provides much-needed educational opportunities for low-income children, would lose more than $1 billion in funding, forcing serious cutbacks in the availability of their much-needed service.
In sum, the Department of Education would lose nearly $5 billion, or more than 7 percent of its budget. Cutting money from much-needed grants for low-income schools would only reinforce disparities in education and income. The savings may be appealing in the short term but the long-term implications are dire.
The House Republican continuing resolution attempts to save money by drastically cutting Pell Grants, the cornerstone of federal financial aid. Under the proposal, Pell Grants would decrease in value from $5,550 to $4,705, a loss of more than 15 percent.
Combined with the rapidly increasing cost of attending college, this decrease in financial aid may prevent otherwise qualified and willing students from earning a higher education. To outcompete other countries, the United States needs to make education more accessible, not pull the rug out from under its lower-income students.
The party that idealizes small-town America has not spared rural communities from devastating budget cuts. More than $200 million would be cut from Rural Development loan assistance programs, which provide much-needed assistance to keep rural families in their homes and help others realize the dream of homeownership. Another $200 million would be cut from utilities grants—funds necessary to help bring vital infrastructure to residents who live far from urban centers.
Responsible development and conservation would also be greatly impaired as a product of cuts to the Army Corps of Engineers, amounting in total to more than $500 million. The Corps of Engineers does extremely important work in a number of vulnerable communities, including wetland restoration, infrastructure development, and resource management. Disaster preparedness and response capacities would be also be greatly diminished because of cuts to the Corps, and this loss would be further compounded by nearly $1.6 billion in cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The House Republican continuing resolution threatens to leave rural communities without the vital lifelines many need to stay afloat, and vulnerable to natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and blizzards. Deficit reduction is important but it shouldn’t be done on the backs of our small towns.
The Center for American Progress recognizes the need to trim the growing federal budget deficit. But this is a task that must be undertaken responsibly, not haphazardly. The cuts passed in the House continuing resolution would negatively impact the lives of millions of Americans, yet would do little to trim the budget with respect to the overall deficit. This continuing resolution still needs to be considered in the Senate; hopefully, the body will prevent such heinous cuts from passage.
Instead of using a slash-and-burn approach, we should focus our attention on identifying programs that work, eliminating the ones that don’t, cutting defense spending, and reinvesting in our innovative engine to keep the economy competitive for decades to come.
More on the budget from CAP: