The New York Times
June 24, 2011
For all of the economic hardship of the last several years, there was reason to hope that the nation could avoid a crushing increase in the number of Americans living in poverty. That hope is fading fast.
In 2008, amid a deepening recession, a Census Bureau measure showed that the number of poor Americans rose by 1.7 million to nearly 47.5 million. In 2009, thanks in large part to the Obama stimulus, the rise in poverty was halted -- a significant accomplishment at a time of worsening unemployment. When data for 2010 are released in the fall, poverty is expected to have stayed in check because the stimulus, including aid to states and bolstered unemployment benefits, was still in effect last year.
This year and next are a different story. The stimulus is waning and Republicans are targeting poverty-fighting programs for deep cuts. Obama officials have said that low-income programs will not be automatically cut to fit a preconceived target from the debt-limit talks, but there is no guarantee they will stick to that position.
Exempting low-income programs has been a major feature of deficit deals going back to 1985. Both sides should publicly commit to that now, and take steps to strengthen the safety net. The alternative is unconscionable harm:
MEDICAID Federal stimulus funds for Medicaid -- an additional $102 billion to the states over the past three years -- run out at the end of June. Long-term deficit reduction will require controlling health care costs. But with the economy weak, there is no excuse for immediate cuts to the joint federal and state health program that is a lifeline for 68 million low-income Americans.
UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS In 2010, Congress allocated $56.5 billion to renew expiring federal jobless benefits through 2011 but dropped a $25-a-week supplement that had been added under the stimulus. That reduction could push an estimated 175,000 people into poverty this year.
Another threat is that jobless benefits won't be renewed -- or will be watered down -- when they expire at the end of 2011. A recent bill from some House Republicans would let states use federal jobless money for other purposes, denying unemployed workers the cash they need to get by.
FOOD AID Some 44.6 million Americans use food stamps at a cost, this year, of $71.5 billion. House Republicans want to turn the program into a block grant, which would end the guarantee of food aid to all who qualify. The federal Women, Infants and Children assistance program, which helps some nine million low-income people, is also being targeted. Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled House voted to cut $733 million from the $6.7 billion program. That would force WIC to turn away an estimated 300,000 to 450,000 eligible applicants next year.
TEMPORARY ASSISTANCE FOR NEEDY FAMILIES This $16.6 billion block grant, known as TANF, helps states provide cash to two million poor families, as well as child care and other services. This year, an estimated 700,000 recipients will face reduced benefits, in part because a TANF contingency fund for use during downturns has not been replenished. A $5 billion infusion from the stimulus -- used, in large part, to subsidize jobs for TANF recipients -- also ended in 2010. Congress did not extend it, cutting off funds for 250,000 jobs.
Much of the real money for deficit reduction will inevitably have to come from popular programs, like reducing payments to Medicare providers, and reining in defense spending. And it must come from tax increases, no matter how much Republicans may wish it otherwise.
Making the poor carry a heavy part of the deficit burden is intolerable.