Timing Is Everything

Adjusting Antipoverty Programs Now Will Not Significantly Reduce the Federal Budget Deficit

Joy Moses applauds the new Government Accountability Office report on costly overlapping government programs, especially its recommendations to proceed cautiously before reforming hunger and homelessness programs.

A woman waits to be called for an appointment for food stamps in El Cajon, California. The federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, kept 3.6 million people out of poverty in 2009. (AP/Gregory Bull)
A woman waits to be called for an appointment for food stamps in El Cajon, California. The federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, kept 3.6 million people out of poverty in 2009. (AP/Gregory Bull)

The Government Accountability Office earlier this week released a timely report examining a broad range of federal government programs to identify potential duplications and administrative cost savings. The report’s focus on “fiscal pressures facing our national government” alongside recommendations to fix our nation’s “long-term fiscal path” by taking action against overlapping programs were immediately seized upon by policymakers across the political spectrum as they debate how to reduce our federal budget deficit.

But lost in the news coverage of the report by the research arm of the U.S. Congress were GAO’s words of caution about how to proceed when examining federal antipoverty programs: “Provided such actions [addressing overlap and inefficiencies] are balanced with the program goals of serving eligible vulnerable and low-income individuals and the need to maintain program integrity, creating efficiencies could put these agencies in a position to better assist program participants while decreasing administrative burdens.”

Indeed, there is a time and place for everything, and now isn’t the time or place for Congress to focus on these types of reforms for nutrition or homelessness programs. If the reform of these programs brought an optimistically high reduction in administrative costs, savings to the federal budget would be about less than a billion dollars. With a $1.5 trillion budget deficit, Congress needs to focus on large cuts to truly wasteful government programs as well as find new sources of revenues such as tax expenditure reforms that will make a real dent in the budget gap savings.

Not that undertaking such an effort in government antipoverty programs isn’t a good idea. It is. We applaud the GAO’s suggestion for restructuring the administration of antihunger programs—not least because they mirror the ideas offered by CAP Visiting Fellow Joel Berg in “Doing What Works to End U.S. Hunger” as well as in his recent book All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?

But in the aftermath of one of the most severe recessions in American history, and given the significant amounts of unmet needs of hungry and homeless Americans in good times and bad, it simply does not make sense to take money from those systems that are literally the option of last resort for the most basic of needs—food and shelter—without first examining carefully how to go about doing so.

Debates about how to improve the operations of these programs must occur in the proper context. If the primary goals are to improve program quality and ease access to services, with savings for reinvestment being a secondary benefit, then the right place for this review is within the context of a legislative reauthorization or after a full review of evaluation of program improvement strategies. This is far different from exploring such options as a part of a debate about balancing the budget.

Put simply, the food and homelessness program recommendations in the GAO report place these debates in the wrong setting.

Timing is also important for other reasons. Antihunger programs have been successfully reaching millions of people, dramatically reducing hunger over the last couple of decades, yet 50.1 million Americans still live in food-insecure homes. Further, significant numbers of individuals and families with children continue to experience homelessness, with many still going unsheltered and being turned away from shelters due to a lack of beds. Clearly, much remains to be done to cut poverty in half over the coming decade, as our colleagues over at Half in Ten are working on.

There is no debate that if administrative savings can be found by streamlining the administration of government antipoverty programs then streamlining should occur. But there is certainly a need for a robust discussion about where those savings are directed. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on March 2 suggests that most Americans believe putting funds in the hands of struggling families makes more sense than directly cutting these programs in an effort to cure the budget deficit.

GAO recommends that the Department of Agriculture “conduct a study as a first step, convene a group of experts; identify which of the less-studied programs need further research, and take steps to fill the research gap or pilot proposed changes,” before any action on antipoverty program reforms begin. That makes sense. Decisions should not be made in this arena within the current efforts to address the federal budget deficit. The timing is all wrong.

Many elected officials proclaim that now is the time for Washington to tighten its belt, just like millions of American families are doing as they mend their own budgets in the wake of the Great Recession. But for those Americans with individual or family budgets that cannot make ends meet, such political rhetoric is as meaningless as it is unhelpful. The federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, kept 3.6 million people out of poverty in 2009—helping them avoid falling into desperate poverty or sleepless nights on the streets. SNAP and other crucial antipoverty programs should be the last place this nation looks for savings without first thoroughly exploring how to do so effectively and efficiently.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.

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Joy Moses

Senior Policy Analyst