Mean-spiritedthat is the only way to describe the budget cuts proposed by the House of Representatives. They are not only deep; their impact will be felt most by the very people who are least able to sustain them, namely, the poorest: low-income working parents, the elderly, children and legal immigrants. These are the ones most dependent on so-called mandatory or entitlement programs. The food stamp program is among those at the center on the House chopping block. Long a safety net for millions, it has made the difference between hunger and basic nutrition for millions of households with children, which receive almost 80 percent of food stamp benefits. In addition, 18 percent of such households include an elderly person, and almost a quarter have a person who is disabled. Close to 90 percent of the households that qualify for the program have gross incomes below the poverty line.
Yet despite the crucial health-related service the program provides, the House Agriculture Committee would cause 300,000 to lose their food stamps entirely. The committee’s proposal, moreover, comes at a time when the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that nearly 40 million households in the country are food insecurethat is, without sufficient resources to acquire an adequate supply of food. Making matters worse, the House also calls for cuts in child care and foster care, including termination of a program that makes it possible in some states for grandparents to receive funds to care for children removed from their parents because of abuse or neglect.
The House bill’s Medicaid proposals would both cut covered health services for the poor and make the poor pay more for the reduced services. Medicaid is the country’s primary health program for low-income Americans. Through it, health careincluding most nursing home careis provided for over 50 million people. Many of them are low-income children, pregnant women and the elderly, as well as people with disabilities. And yet the House Energy and Commerce Committee would not only mandate significant cuts, but also permit states to saddle beneficiaries with new costs for health services and prescription medications. The non-profit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that six million children would be affected under the House plan. It would allow states to require co-payments for children’s doctor and hospital visits, along with other health services. Perhaps most shocking, if the Medicaid proposals are passed, poor people could be denied care if they could not afford the new premiums, deductibles and co-pays, which could consume as much as 5 percent of a family’s income. Imagine a mother supporting two children on an $8-an-hour job having to spend $825 for medicine and doctor visits for a child with severe asthma or other chronic disease. And imagine that child going without treatment because there is no money left after paying for rent, food and day care.
The Senate has taken a more moderate approach than the House in regard to both the food stamp program and Medicaid. Its proposal does not include any cuts to the food stamp programor, indeed, to others like foster care or S.S.I. Nor does it call for cuts to Medicaid. As Sharon Daly, senior adviser for public policy at Catholic Charities USA, told America: Most of the savings the Senate seeks would come through forcing drug companies to provide rebates on Medicaid prescriptions, and by removing the $9 billion subsidy from Medicare H.M.O.’s designed by the Bush administration to persuade elderly people to sign up for managed care. It remains to be seen how the Senate and the House will reconcile their very different views of budget cuts.
On the other hand, neither the House nor the Senate has expressed any desire to limit the enormous tax relief that has come through tax cuts for the wealthiest families. The Urban Institute/Brookings Tax Policy Center has stated that the tax cuts over the past few years have reduced the bill for people with incomes of over $1 million a year by approximately $100,000 annually. Sadly and unjustly, the proposed budget cuts in programs for the poor would notas some, like Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (Republican of Illinois), have claimedpay for hurricane-related costs and reduce the deficit. Rather, they would offset the price of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts it, the new tax cuts would cost more money than the budget cuts would save. Tax cuts that increase the huge deficit should be rolled back. Above all, large-scale cuts in programs that weaken the already weak safety net for the poorest Americans should be avoided. That safety net should be strengthened, not weakened.