Congress’ budget proposals would mean more sacrifice for those who can least afford it


What’s in a federal budget? Reams of statistics, tables, charts, and footnotes. They describe what a budget means to accountants and analysts, often in terms indecipherable to the rest of us.

Another way of describing what the budget means is more to the point – food, shelter, health care, education, and housing. And when you look at the budget proposals offered by the majority party in Congress, cuts in all those categories mean further hardship and sacrifice for those among us who can least afford it.

The budget resolutions adopted by the House and Senate offer a blueprint on how to transfer wealth from the poor and working class to the well-off and super-rich through cutting programs and increasing tax breaks. If budgets embody moral choices, the budget resolutions adopted by the congressional majority turn ethics on its head. In Hebrew, the word “charity” is the same as “justice.”

Jewish values – indeed, universal human values – tell us that sharing of our resources through charity is one of the most important commandments that we can fulfill.

Neither charity nor justice can be found in the budget resolutions. Discretionary spending would be cut by nearly 70 percent – that is, spending not already mandated elsewhere by law, such as Social Security. And that 70 percent comes out of human needs programs that now represent only 30 percent of the total. On the other hand, the House and Senate budget add money for defense that exceeds the president’s request ending the sequester for defense while further cutting nondefense spending.

In some cases, the safety net programs so critical to women, children, and families would be slashed outright. For example, yet again, the House and Senate budgets would repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite the growing good news about its success. For other programs, the cuts are disguised first by converting programs to block grants subject to the whims of the states and then gutting them financially.

Indeed, Congress would convert much of Medicaid to block grants, incorporating deep cuts in funding that translate into deep cuts in the number of people uninsured or underinsured. The House plan also block-grants food aid provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP, formerly food stamps) with cuts of $125 billion, or more than one-third, between 2021 and 2025. Cuts this large require ending food assistance for millions of low-income families and/or cutting benefits for millions more. School lunch programs are at risk, along with the Women, Infants, and Children program, known as WIC, that provides food to low income expectant mothers and to babies.

Tax credits targeted at the working poor would expire at the end of 2017, sending more than 16 million people, including almost 8 million children, into poverty or, for those already poor by definition, even deeper into destitution. Unemployment benefits for the long-term uninsured would be cut, although the job market is still problematic.

Although the particulars of many program cuts are not spelled out in the budget resolutions, education funding for everything from Pell grants that pay for college to Head Start that enables poor children to attend preschool is expected to suffer. Programs that help pay the costs of home heating would be reduced. In other words, a panoply of programs that make life less harsh and make our country a more humane place are on the chopping block. Lest you think budget cuts are justified by an impending fiscal calamity, federal spending as a percentage of the gross national product – the sum of the value of the nation’s goods and services – is near historic lows, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

There’s been a lot of talk about inequality of late, and it will only worsen if our safety net disintegrates. While the poorest among us surely need our collective help, inequality hurts all of us.

All of our country’s residents need to flourish individually if we are to prosper together. The cuts planned are morally wrong, cruel, and short-sighted. Congress must support a budget that protects low income and vulnerable individuals, invests in broadly shared prosperity that raises incomes across the economic spectrum, increases revenues from fair sources, and seeks responsible savings by targeting wasteful spending in the Pentagon and elsewhere.

Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women.

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