The big squeeze on human needs programs continues

Many Democrats and Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when, last month, Congress finally passed and President Trump signed the budget bill for the current 2017 fiscal year.

But a broader, more historic view of funding for our nation’s crucial human needs programs is considerably less rosy. And as we prepare for the 2018 fiscal year budget negotiations, the signs are downright ominous.

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My organization, the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN), compared funding for 167 human needs programs from 2010 through 2017. We chose 2010 as our initial benchmark because that is the year before the Budget Control Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama. That law called for tight caps on spending, plus deeper automatic cuts if Congress could not curtail spending on its own.

Of the 167 programs we tracked, 135 programs, or more than 80 percent, have experienced cuts between 2010 and 2017. 85 programs were cut by 15 percent or more; 53 programs (nearly one-third of all programs tracked) were cut by at least 25 percent. Fewer than one in five programs actually received funding increases when adjusted for inflation.

What do the programs examined by CHN do and why are they important? They help prepare low-income people for work, fund low-income housing and education from pre-k to college, provide healthcare and nutrition aid for women, infants and toddlers. They offer services for people with HIV and AIDS, prevent and treat childhood lead poisoning, provide substance abuse and mental health treatment, as well as services for children, seniors, people with disabilities, refugees, and children and youth in the child welfare and criminal justice systems.

Many of these programs have two things in common. First, they are anti-poverty engines, helping people get jobs, helping children grow and thrive, ensuring that people can afford housing and can heat or cool their homes, and offering special help for the homeless, runaway youth, and people with disabilities.

Second, leaders of both parties have recognized these anti-poverty efforts as important, bipartisan priorities. Examples:

Both Democrats and Republicans support preventing youth crime. Yet we’ve cut juvenile justice funding 46.5 percent since 2010. We have an affordable housing crisis in our country. But we’ve cut the Public Housing Capital Fund 30.9 percent and Public Housing Operating funds are down 18 percent. Other programs receiving substantial reductions include the Reintegration of Ex-Offenders (down 27.7 percent); adult and youth training (down nearly 16 percent); the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP, cut 39.6 percent); and Adult Education State Grants (cut 17.2 percent).

We can fight poverty by investing in these programs. But budget decisions over the past seven years – in some cases, agreed to by both political parties – have left many programs that serve human needs starved for funding.

As bad as that news is, it could soon get worse, for two reasons. First, $3 billion in additional cuts to domestic and international programs are scheduled to go into effect under the Budget Control Act – sometimes called the sequester – in fiscal year 2018, which begins Oct. 1. Second and even worse: President Trump has proposed cuts of $54 billion below the sequester cap. Needless to say, such cuts would constitute an unprecedented disinvestment in anti-poverty services.

In negotiating the fiscal year 2018 budget, Congress has three choices and two of them are bad. First, it can simply accept the sequester cuts of $3 billion. This would constitute further erosion of our nation’s efforts to eradicate poverty. Second, it could go further, agreeing to Trump’s Draconian cuts, or agreeing to pass some level of funding between the already very harmful sequester cuts, and the incomprehensible $54 billion.

But there is a third and better choice. It can recognize that access to basic living standards and jobs is not a Democratic issue nor a Republican issue, but rather a bipartisan issue. We all benefit when our economy benefits. And our economy benefits when we invest in people through healthcare, education, housing and rebuilding communities. Instead of making these investments, the Trump administration makes cuts, while proposing over $5.5 trillion in tax cuts, overwhelmingly targeted to millionaires and profitable corporations.

The best choice is really not that complicated. Which is why the Coalition on Human Needs and many of our allies, representing faith groups, human service providers, labor and civil rights organizations and others have signed a letter urging Congress to pass a budget that helps people secure basic living standards and invests in fighting poverty.

Weinstein is executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs (CHN). CHN is an alliance of national organizations working together to promote public policies which address the needs of low-income and other vulnerable populations. For more information please visit www.chn.org.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.