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Bait and Switch

Congress Chooses One Week’s Worth of Tax Cuts for Millionaires over Nutrition Assistance for Families that Need It

If House Republicans get their way in the federal budget for fiscal year 2012 beginning in October, nearly 500,000 women, infants, and children could be deprived of basic nutritional assistance. Though Republican leaders justify this decision on the grounds that budget deficits require "shared sacrifice," the tax cuts they recently fought to extend will give away more money to America’s 300,000 millionaires this week than it will cost to adequately fund nutrition programs for all of next year.

That’s the story and the math behind the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee decision to slash the budget for the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, by $833 million in FY 2012. WIC provides nutritious foods to low-income pregnant women, new moms, babies, and children under 5 who have been identified as nutritionally at risk. The program has done this successfully for nearly 40 years at a relatively modest cost to the federal government, which is why the program has traditionally enjoyed strong bipartisan support.

The bill approved this week by Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee upends that bipartisan commitment, imposing deep and harmful cuts to WIC and denying assistance to 325,000 to 475,000 eligible mothers, infants, and children. In fact, not content with cutting WIC, the House Republicans also placed on the chopping block the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which delivers nutritionally appropriate meals to low-income, often homebound seniors. Tens of thousands of vulnerable seniors would lose access to these meals if these cuts totaling $38 million are ultimately signed into law.

Conservatives often claim that private charities and faith-based organizations will simply pick up the slack. Yet the funding bill for agriculture and nutrition programs also slashes the very funding that supports emergency food bank networks, through both food commodities and storage and distribution. The bill cuts $63 million from The Emergency Food Assistance Program, a decision that would significantly impede the ability of private food banks, shelters, and pantries to meet the rising need.

All told, the bill cuts $934 million out of these three federal nutrition programs. House Republicans say that given our nation’s fiscal challenges, these draconian cuts are unavoidable. Indeed, when announcing the cuts to nutrition services, Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Jack Kingston patted himself on the back for “making some of the tough choices necessary to right the ship.”

But slashing federal nutrition assistance won’t right the ship. It would steer us in the wrong direction. The WIC program represents about two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget. Even if one disregards the negative consequences on family budgets and the overall economy, the proposed cuts would reduce this year’s federal deficit by less than one-tenth of a percent.

In all likelihood, these cuts would leave the country and the federal budget in worse shape. Investing in the nutrition of pregnant women, infants, and young children is often credited with saving federal dollars in the short term and long run. By ensuring vulnerable children have access to adequate nutrition, WIC often prevents more costly health problems down the line and improves children’s school performance. According to researchers at Children’s HealthWatch, children’s brain size more than doubles in their first year of life when they are provided with appropriate nutrition. By ensuring moms and new babies have the nutritional supports they need to thrive during this critical time, WIC decreases the risk of developmental delays and promotes school readiness.

The program’s biggest cost-savings, however, often come before the child has even turned 1 year old. Economists estimate that every $1 invested in WIC saves between $1.77 and $3.13 in health care costs in the first 60 days after an infant’s birth by reducing the instance of low-birth-weight babies and improving child immunization rates. In fact, it is estimated that the program has saved more than 200,000 babies from dying at birth.

The choice made by Republican members of Congress to target nutrition programs for budget cuts is hardly “tough” or “necessary.” The hardship these cuts would inflict on America’s most vulnerable families and over time on our entire society can easily be avoided with only a small change in priorities. To give one stunning example, the $833 million that Republicans propose to slash from WIC is roughly equivalent to one week’s worth of “Bush” tax cuts for millionaires.

Here’s the math: The deal struck last December to extend the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush gave the average millionaire a tax break of $139,199 for 2011, according to the Tax Policy Center, or nearly $2,700 per week. Given that about 321,000 households reported incomes of more than $1 million in the most recent year for which there are data from the Internal Revenue Service, that means the Bush tax cuts provide millionaires with about $860 million in tax breaks every week—more than enough to stave off the $833 million in proposed cuts to WIC.

One additional day’s worth of tax cuts for millionaires would be enough to prevent cuts to the Commodity Supplemental Food Program and The Emergency Food Assistance Program passed by the House this past week.

Polls have shown that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the American public is concerned that the GOP deficit-reduction plan will take away needed protections for the poor and the disadvantaged and will “protect the rich at the expense of everyone else.” The House bill unfortunately confirms those fears.

But it’s not too late to rethink our priorities. While the bill will likely pass through the entire House, the Senate still has the opportunity to block these cuts and continue the bipartisan tradition of investing in our nutritional safety net, both to prevent immediate hardship and for the long-term economic health of our nation.

Melissa Boteach is the manager of the Half in Ten campaign, a project of CAP Action, the Coalition on Human Needs, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights to cut U.S. poverty in half in 10 years. Seth Hanlon is Director of Fiscal Reform for CAP’s Doing What Works project.