Reduce the Deficit Without Increasing Poverty


Congress should take steps to protect anti-poverty "safety net" programs during the federal budget deficit negotiations, a coalition of community and civil rights organizations said this week.

In a letter signed by about 20 prominent leaders of civil rights, charitable, family advocacy, and faith-based groups, the coalition pointed to a precedent of exempting anti-poverty programs from automatic cuts in order to reduce the deficit.

Since the 1990s, the letter reads, "every automatic budget cut mechanism of the past quarter-century has exempted core low-income assistance programs from any automatic across-the-board cuts triggered when budget targets or fiscal restraint rules were missed or violated. The 1985 and 1987 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings laws, the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act, the 1993 deficit reduction package, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, and the 2010 pay-as-you-go law all exempted core low-income programs from automatic cuts."

The letter went on to applaud an appeal by a broad coalition of Christian churches to draw a "Circle of Protection" around safety net programs in the budget negotiations.

Since the Great Recession, the poverty rate in the U.S. is the highest since the 1950s.

Congress should not make the poor double victims of the recession and budget cuts, said Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America. "With more of our nation's men, women and children facing hunger today than ever before, it would be unconscionable for the Congress and the Administration to cut the first line of defense against hunger in America."

"We must find  solutions to our nation's economic challenges that do not send millions more people into the grips of hunger and poverty," she said in a statement announcing the release of the joint letter.

Echoing these remarks, Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, added, "Our families are struggling to make ends meet and our communities are suffering from record levels of unemployment and increasing poverty. It's time to get the country back on track and that means focusing on job creation and supporting our families."

"Protecting the programs that serve families in need is a vital component of any budget negotiations," he said. "It's time to move beyond the partisan gridlock and to the real solution, good jobs for unemployed and underemployed workers and adequate support for families in need."

Indiscriminate budget cuts would harm women and children first, said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, and Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund.

"Women disproportionately rely on Medicaid, SNAP (Food Stamps) and other safety net programs to meet their own and their children's basic needs – and on programs like child care assistance and Pell grants for a chance to get ahead and give their children a better life," said Campbell. "Maintaining supports for low-income women and their families isn't just fair – it's a smart investment in our common future."

Edelman added, "Children are the poorest age group in America, and hunger, homelessness and poverty have risen dramatically for them in the last two years. Two-thirds of the 15.5 million poor children live in families in which at least one person is working."
"We must protect children, their families and other vulnerable people while finding ways to reduce the deficit that reflect moral sense, common sense and economic sense." she explained.

Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, added that increasing poverty would violate American values. "Our leaders would be wise to follow the precedent of previous administrations and Congresses and refuse to cut any programs that strengthen economic security for low-income families."

Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau & Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy, described the safety net as a basic civil right. "It is incumbent upon the federal government to meet the unique needs of the most vulnerable Americans among us and that they are allowed to engage in their Constitutional right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness." 

Readers should call or write to their members of Congress to urge support for the call by religious and community coalitions to protect safety net programs during the federal budget negotiations.

Congress can easily reduce the deficit without increasing poverty by bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan faster, eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the rich, and reducing wasteful military spending.

Photo by ImNotQuiteJack/cc by 2.0/Flickr

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