Don't balance the budget on the backs of the poor

How come, when Congress figures it must trim the federal budget deficit, it first turns to cutting programs that benefit primarily the poor?

The poor are numerous - 37 million in 2004, or 12.7 percent of the total United States population. That number was up from the year before.

Yet Congress (the House especially) has focused on chopping programs that serve low-income families with children, or low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities.

"It's outrageous," says David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.

Mr. Beckmann and others point out that many poor people don't vote. They vote proportionately less than do middle-income or rich people. The poor, sometimes with two jobs or maybe doing manual work, often have difficulty getting themselves to polling stations. Many are undereducated and find it hard to follow the complexities and consequences of congressional budget procedures.

Even if more poor people did go to the polls, many members of Congress could act as if those votes don't matter. Over the years, House districts have been redrawn to ensure the reelection prospects of members. The poor sometimes are piled into one "safe" district, often Democratic. Few low-income people are left in prosperous suburban districts, many of which are Republican.

"They don't have to give a hoot for what happens to the poor," says Beckmann.

Moreover, the poor certainly can't afford to make the big campaign contributions that are important to politicians in an era when election costs have become astronomical.

Nonetheless, there are political limits on how much money Congress can chop from the safety net for the poor - such programs as Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Child Care, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance, and so on.

House Republican leaders, hoping to demonstrate their conservative prowess, had planned to cut $50 billion, substantially from such low-income programs, over five years. That's up from the $35 billion called for in April's budget resolution. But in the face of opposition from Democrats and some moderate Republicans, both of whom face reelection next fall, leaders couldn't get enough support earlier this month.

Senators, faced with rich, middle-class, and poor voters, have been less ambitious in planning cuts from entitlement programs to low-income people.

The Senate approved a $612 billion budget package last week. The full House may have a package to consider this week or next. Differences in the two bills must be resolved in conference. Congress hopes to reach an agreement before Thanksgiving and then adjourn.

"I hope the process breaks down," says James Horney, an economist at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. "It will be better for the country."

That's not just because he doesn't want the poor to get the ax. Mr. Horney also objects to a second House reconciliation bill aimed at cutting taxes another $70 billion - on top of the two previous tax cuts under President Bush.

If spending cuts of $35 billion to $50 billion are passed, $70 billion in tax cuts would mean adding $20 billion to $35 billion to the five-year deficit ahead. This year's deficit already is expected to exceed $300 billion.

Though full details of the tax-cut plans are murky, one item would extend a tax break for capital gains and corporate dividends. More than half the benefits of that extension would go to taxpayers making $1 million or more a year, notes John Irons, a budget expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

There is one program for the poor - food stamps - which has probably been saved from cuts by a largely middle-class coalition.

"It's a huge victory for the religious community and for food banks and antihunger groups across the country," says Beckmann.

Last winter, Bush proposed a fiscal 2006 budget that would have cut food stamps going to 300,000 families. Beckmann's Bread for the World, America's Second Harvest, Sojourners, and a host of other religious groups and leaders - Christian, Jewish, and Muslim - moved to block the plan. They sent some 250,000 letters to Congress. Apparently their efforts succeeded.

Indeed, Beckmann hopes a Hunger-Free Communities Act will pass. It would provide communities with grants to promote antihunger efforts at a total cost of $50 million.

Democrats have watched with some glee as the Republican-led Congress struggles to reduce the deficit, leave defense spending intact, pay for Iraq and hurricane Katrina, and yet not raise taxes.

"It is a shame," e-mailed former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle. "Republican Washington is not interested in a hand up to Americans struggling in tough times - it is more interested in hand outs to millionaires and the corporate special interests."

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