Social-cause crowd blasts Bush budget

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The Bush administration's new budget has left Washington's social-cause establishment in shock.

As many dozens of advocacy groups see it, President Bush's spending and regulatory plans will damage programs that help provide education, healthcare, child-care, housing, and other aid to poor families and their children.

"This is a thematic attempt by this administration to undercut gains in the last 40 years in helping low-income families," says Stuart Campbell, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a group that includes as many as 200 organizations. "It is a clear attack on federal social-safety net programs."

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"I don't think I've ever seen such an assault on children's programs," says Mary Bourdette, a director at the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). "A huge amount is at stake."

What especially galls these often idealistic groups, which tend to be more liberal than the American mainstream, is that spending cuts in their favorite programs help offset tax cuts that mostly benefit the well-to-do. Millionaires will receive $89,000 on average in tax cuts, they point out.

From the administration's standpoint, program changes are essential to restrain excessive spending, prevent fraud, and shift control to states and municipalities.

But these governments are in fiscal crisis. Many are raising taxes and cutting spending on low-income families.

Various groups are campaigning against the Bush measures. The CDF, for instance, organized teach-ins and interfaith services last month for nearly 1,000 religious leaders, policy experts, politicians, and others to protest Bush's proposals to, in its words, "eliminate, slash, and freeze children's programs."

The Fair Taxes for All Coalition, which fought the 2001 Bush tax cut, is resisting the new Bush tax agenda, which critics say could cut federal revenues by $2.5 trillion over the next 10 years. The coalition is made up of more than 500 organizations. It includes the AFL-CIO and other labor groups, civil rights groups, religious organizations, liberal think tanks, as well as groups concerned with housing, educational, and social welfare.

The Bush plan will "shift the tax burden to the middle class and poor," charges Joan Entmacher, vice president of the National Women's Law Center, a group comanaging the tax coalition.

Here are some areas that are seen by the advocacy groups as being at risk:

Child-care: The budget proposes freezing federal child-care funding for five years. Because of inflation and rising wages and other costs, this will shrink the number of children receiving child-care subsidies from 2.5 million to 2.3 million by 2007, the budget notes.

At present, only 1 in 7 eligible families gets subsidies, running about $3,900 a year, says Jennifer Mezey, an expert at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington. The annual income of these families is at most $30,000.

The Bush administration proposes that single mothers on welfare be required to work 40 hours a week instead of 30 to collect such benefits as child-care and education subsidies. A bill to this effect passed the House last month.

Head Start: The preschool program, serving nearly 1 million poor children, would become a block-grant program, shifting responsibility to the states. The $6.8 billion program currently serves about 3 in 5 eligible children. Critics charge that preschool education will fade if federal funding rises only enough to keep up with inflation.

Earned-Income Tax Credit: This program aims to boost the income of the working poor and give them an incentive to work harder. The administration wants applicants to provide more proof of eligibility, including income stubs, rent receipts, and other documents. The budget adds $100 million for 650 more Internal Revenue Service (IRS) auditors to check out tax returns claiming the EITC.

Critics charge the new procedures will drive away eligible families and that IRS audits could take eight months, holding up refunds. Though errors in complex EITC tax returns are frequent but diminishing, actual cheating is far less common, they say.

David Marzahl, executive director of the Center for Economic Progress in Washington, says the IRS audits EITC filers at a higher rate than high-income taxpayers and small businesses. "It should go after the low-hanging fruit," he says.

Healthcare: Bush proposes merging the Children's Health Insurance Program and Medicaid, which covers 45 million low-income Americans, into a new block grant to states. This will give states the latitude to scale back health coverage for families and their children and allow them to impose substantial cost-sharing requirements, the CDF charges.

Also damaged by Bush, critics say, are after-school services, low-income housing, school lunches, and other programs.

The CDF says Bush first absconded with its long-time slogan, Leave No Child Behind, later altered it a bit - and now is leaving many children behind.

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