By Ron Gilbert
Despite initial efforts by Congress and the Administration to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” the economic security of millions of American families still hangs in the balance. It is likely that a deal will be struck to avert the full effects of a recession; however, the prospect of a bad bargain that would negatively impact millions of Americans remains a danger.
During these negotiations, Congress and the Administration may choose to weaken essential programs—like Medicare and job training—which ensure basic economic security to middle and low-income Americans across the country. In fact, the Census Bureau estimated that last year the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program helped keep 3.9 million Americans out of poverty, including 1.7 million children, while the EITC helped keep 5.7 million Americans out of poverty, including 3.1 million children. Social Security alone kept 21.4 million Americans out of poverty last year.
These programs are investments in our economy and in our country’s greatest strengths—the American people and our workforce. Mothers who can access housing and child care assistance are more productive workers. Nutrition assistance and jobless benefits ensure that parents can take care of their children during difficult times. And working families with enough money in their pockets are able to support local businesses, create economic demand, and drive our economy forward.
Yet, these services are the ones now on the chopping block. If scheduled cuts to non-defense discretionary spending (the category in the federal budget that funds many of these investments) take effect, almost 29,000 fewer women, children, and families in Alabama would be served by the Maternal and Child Health Block grant. There would be almost $2 million less funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. And 27,057 fewer low-income individuals would be supported through the Community Services Block grant. Still worse, a compromise to avoid this fiscal cliff that does not ask the richest Americans to pay their fair share will mean ever steeper cuts to these services, and include damaging reductions to programs currently exempt from these cuts, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
My organization Community Action Association of Alabama, worked with a national partner, Wider Opportunities for Women, to produce the Basic Economic Security Tables for Alabama, which measures the true cost of getting by for all different family types in our communities. For example, a single worker in Alabama needs to earn, on average, $12.44/hour, or $26,268 a year, just to meet the costs of basic expenses, such as housing, food, transportation and health care. A family of four requires nearly $58,000 a year. Far too many jobs in our state do not ensure families these incomes, leaving many of our neighbors living paycheck to paycheck. In fact, according to this measure, Wider Opportunities for Women found that 45 percent of U.S. residents in 2010 lived in households which struggle to get by each day. Further cuts to social support services may endanger even more households.
Our work to address the deficit should pass the basic tests of balance and fairness. Balance and fairness, in this case, is not the middle ground between the positions of two political parties; it means taking the side of America’s middle class asking those most able to afford it to pay their fair share in deficit reduction. Proposals by some in Congress to reduce spending further for services to low-income and vulnerable people, while preserving the costliest tax breaks and loopholes for the richest Americans, fail these tests. These services are not the drivers of our deficit and have already done their part in deficit reduction (Congress already cut their funding by hundreds of billions of dollars last summer). The Administration and Congress have a clear choice: Build up America’s future by affirming the importance and ensuring the survival of programs that support family economic security–or favor wasteful tax cuts for the most well-off and cut off support to struggling families. And we need to do our part to ensure that our elected representatives make the right choice.
Ron Gilbert ([email protected]) is the executive director of the Community Action Association of Alabama, a network of local community action agencies that work to address poverty in all sixty-seven counties.