Bush's lean and mean new budget

For low-income Americans, who will have less money to pay for child care, heating bills, housing and public parks, it will be mostly mean.

By Julia Scott

Published February 10, 2005 1:32AM (EST)

When President Bush released his "lean" budget for 2006 Monday, middle-class and low-income Americans had no idea just how right he was. They can expect nothing but lean times ahead. Lean times for those who depend on Medicaid, child-care assistance or clean water. Lean times for those who rely on food stamps or federal supplements to utility bills. Lean times for those who would like to see their local community build a new baseball field.

Cuts to such social programs are projected to create a savings of $137 billion over 10 years. But if recent history is any guide, the majority of cuts are likely to be rejected or tempered by Congress. As the Christian Science Monitor points out, legislators reinstated 60 of the 65 programs scheduled to be slashed last year. The result: of an anticipated $5 billion in savings, "the administration reaped only about $300 million from the cuts."

Besides, total spending on social programs amounts to only a fraction of what Bush's tax cuts piled onto the federal deficit, according to calculations by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit group concerned with low-income individuals and families. "In 2005," declares the center, "the cost of tax cuts enacted over the past four years will be over three times the cost of all domestic program increases enacted over this period."

While Bush continues to skim off the top of the Social Security trust fund to pay for various initiatives and reduce the debt (while warning of its imminent bankruptcy), he has requested an additional $19.2 billion for the Pentagon, for a total of $419 billion -- and that excludes the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Compare those numbers to the money being cut for essential social services and it's obvious where this administration's priorities lie: The total budget for the Food Stamp Program alone could fit into the defense budget 13 times. Here are some details about proposed cuts to other programs millions of Americans rely on.

CUT: $57 million from the Food Stamp Program
Bush's food stamp cuts will take food out of the mouths of 300,000 families. These are all working families -- so much for the lazy mother myth -- who do not receive cash assistance from TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), a funding source for individual state programs, such as welfare, child care, domestic violence counseling, and transportation. "That's 300,000 very poor people who don't have enough money for food," says Stacy Dean, director of Food Stamp Policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

To qualify for food stamps, a person has to have an income of 130 percent below the poverty line -- $2,043 a month or, for a family of four, $24,000 a year. Currently, about 20 percent of food stamps are awarded to elderly or disabled people and 80 percent to children of families who can't afford to put food on the table. It's the hundreds of thousands of families whose monthly incomes may exceed $2,043 that will bear the burden of the food stamp cuts. And they are precisely "the wrong group of people to be targeting," says Dean, "particularly in a budget that gives millions of dollars in tax cuts."

CUT: $200 million from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program
Right now, 5 million families -- mostly low-income families with elderly and disabled members -- benefit from the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which supplements their heating bills in cold weather. These new cuts are bound to make their winters very cold indeed.

Established in 1982, the program has been under the knife since 2001 -- the 2005 level of funding was lower than any of the previous five years -- and the 2006 budget calls for an 8.4 percent reduction to $2 billion. Fuel money is doled out according to climate, so this cut will disproportionately affect northern states. Many poor people can't afford to properly insulate their homes, and, to make matters worse, the prices of heating oil, propane and natural gas are all increasing -- a trend not likely to reverse anytime soon. What's more, according to a fairly recent energy study, next to not paying their rent, people's inability to pay their utility bills is the main cause of homelessness.

"While we worry about the allocation of billions of dollars here in Congress," Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords said in a statement, "some people must decide between buying food and heating their homes."

CUT: $361 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund
The Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund is the country's largest source of federal funding to upgrade sewage systems. It has distributed nearly $50 billion to states since 1988 to repair old sewer plants and keep raw sewage out of rivers and lakes. Bush wants to cut $361 million from the program this year, leaving states with $730 million. That's in addition to the $250 million slashed from the fund last year because of the budget crisis.

"The administration's solution to making our water pure is to provide less money to municipalities and allow them to dump more," says Wesley Warren, deputy director for advocacy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He adds that every canceled or delayed cleanup project adds gallons of untreated sewage to our waterways.

This cut also comes on the heels of reports that the EPA has been considering "sewage blending," whereby treatment plants mix raw sewage together with fully treated wastewater during storms and declare it potable. This practice -- a veritable fount of waterborne diseases, according to environmentalists -- is necessitated by the dire need for sewage upgrades in low-income areas throughout the nation.

CUT: Community Development Block Grant programs
In the past, the Department of Housing and Urban Development dished out Community Development Block Grant programs to cities to help low-income residents. Cities could then cash in the grants -- a key part of their efforts to keep folks off the streets -- on affordable housing, redevelopment and social services like job training and day care. The new Bush budget boots the community grant program out of HUD and puts it under the aegis of the Department of Commerce. Not a good thing. Last year, HUD backed the program with $4.7 billion; Commerce, now, will give it $3.7 billion. The outcome for cities, says Bart Peterson, Indianapolis mayor, and a vice president for the National League of Cities, is "dramatic reductions." When it comes to many community improvements, he says, "there really isn't another source of funding other than raising local taxes. So you either go without, or you raise local taxes. My guess is that most cities will go without."

CUT: Upward Bound, Talent Search and GEAR UP
College preparatory programs Upward Bound, Talent Search and Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) provide funding to schools and organizations that help low- and moderate-income students get into college. Each program has particular requirements: Upward Bound programs offer math, lab science, composition, literature and foreign language instruction, whereas Talent Search emphasizes counseling, mentoring and bringing dropouts back to school. The Clinton-administration initiative GEAR UP requires applicants to partner with institutes of higher education and follow a group of students from middle school through high school graduation.

The Bush budget would scrap these programs entirely. Given the high number of students served -- the American Council on Education estimates that together Upward Bound, Talent Search and GEAR UP provided services to 700,000 students in 2004 -- schools and supporting organizations would have to scramble to keep their college prep programs afloat. ACE assistant director for Ggovernment relations Chris Simmons says: "If these types of programs disappear, there's going to be a hole to fill. Institutions will have to make up the gap with their own funds, or they're going to have to turn to private resources. These programs really reach into non-English-speaking communities, where college is not part of the life that [students] or their families have experienced  institutions are going to have to try to make up the difference to reach those students."

If institutions can't make up the difference, it's the low-income students who will get left behind.

CUT: $48 million from the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program
In his State of the Union speeches, President Bush loves to imagine a shiny future where people drive hydrogen cars, watch TV by wind power and take baths in water heated by the sun. Renewable energy is always good for 15 seconds of bipartisan applause. But after this budget cut, we defy you to find one Congress member (or TV viewer) who believes the president will actually make good on his Tom Swiftian fantasies.

Carol Werner, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, points out the gap between the president's words and deeds, and says that the new budget "provides significant cuts in renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean air and climate change." Adds the Sustainable Energy Coalition, an advocacy group: "With this request, the administration is continuing its policy of slowly bleeding the budgets for most of its core renewable energy and energy efficiency programs  a policy that ignores the consumer job creation, national security and rural economic development benefits of sustainable energy technologies."

CUT: The stateside Land and Water Conservation Fund
This $91 million slash in the Department of Interior budget literally eliminates federal matching funds for building and maintaining public playgrounds, soccer fields, bike trails and walking paths. Once again, it's folks without expendable incomes, those who can't pack up the Jeep Grand Cherokee to travel to our nation's charismatic national parks, who lose out. These cuts to "close-to-home" recreation areas, says Rindy O'Brien of the advocacy group Americans for Our Heritage and Recreation, unfairly hit people in poor states like North Dakota and Mississippi, where, say, new baseball diamonds or public swimming pools have a much harder time getting built without federal matching funds. "The Bush administration has always been good in making sure there's money for conservation that benefits private land owners," says O'Brien. "But when it comes to new public places to fish or hunt, well, there's no place to go." And with Americans' waistlines getting wider every moment, you'd think the feds would want to grant people more places to walk or swim in their own backyards. "Not so with this administration," says O'Brien.

Additional research by Page Rockwell.

Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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