As negotiating and posturing over the looming “fiscal cliff” continues, one phrase we hear less often than we should is “nondefense discretionary spending.” A boring string of words if ever there was one, it’s a category of spending that will play a role whether we go off the cliff or if we avoid it with a grand bargain, since it stands to see drastic cuts either way. Those abstract, boring words represent very concrete assistance to women and children living in poverty. A significant reduction in governmental spending in that opaquely named category will disproportionately affect programs they rely on.
If nothing is done and we go over the fiscal cliff, sequestration kicks in – automatic spending cuts that resulted from Congress’s failure to reach a deficit reduction deal last year. Sequestration calls for $1.2 trillion in cuts evenly split between defense and nondefense spending over the next decade. But $109 billion of that will hit in fiscal year 2013, gouging a $55 billion hole in the nondefense side. That will amount to an 8.2 percent reduction in nondefense discretionary spending.
If we don’t go over the cliff, any grand bargain to avoid it will most likely have similar cuts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says sequestration is “best thought of as the first stage of deficit-reduction action that is likely to consist of several measures enacted over several years.” President Obama’s recent starting bid in the negotiations includes the sequestration cuts. The Fix the Debt campaign’s CEO Fiscal Leadership Council recommends a deal that wants to “cut low-priority spending.” This category of spending is particularly easy for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to hack at because, as David Kamin explained in The Washington Post, “cutting it is as simple as changing numbers on a spreadsheet.” You have to get a lot more specific in other areas of the budget.
But the effects of fiddling with those numbers are stark for low-income Americans. About 25 percent of that spending goes to programs that help the poor.
This spending represents public investment in the entire country, but the majority of it goes to programs for low-income Americans. Education, housing assistance, child care, nutrition assistance, home heating assistance and income security for the blind, disabled and aged make up a third of it. Much of this is implemented by giving money to the states, which run these programs more locally. Those grants would receive an 18 percent reduction if sequestration hits, including money for nutrition programs for low-income women and children, public education and public housing.
Women, who are the majority of those living in poverty, will be literally left in the cold without this assistance. Liheap, the home energy assistance program, helps 23 million people stay warm in the winter. Section 8 housing assistance vouchers support more than two million families. The Women, Infants and Children program, or W.I.C., helps its nine million enrolled low-income mothers and children with supplemental nutrition and health care referrals. Head Start reached about one million people in 2010, yet would have a reduction of nearly 100,000 children under sequestration. The cuts would also end child-care assistance for 80,000 more children.
When the Census Bureau released new Supplemental Poverty Measure numbers on poverty, which are more comprehensive than the standard measurement, it also included estimates of how many more people would be in poverty without some of these vital programs. The baseline S.P.M. rate of 16.1 percent for the total population would rise to 17 percent without housing assistance, 16.2 percent without W.I.C. and the same rate without Liheap. The numbers are worse when just we just look at children. Their 18.1 percent S.P.M. rate would rise to 19.5 percent without housing assistance, 18.4 percent without W.I.C. and 18.2 percent without Liheap. That means pulling back on these programs exposes those who rely on them to even deeper poverty – and children are hit hardest.
While the spotlight has centered on tax code reform and entitlement spending, this less-discussed category of spending has serious consequences for some of the most vulnerable populations. Poor women and children have been left out of the negotiations, but they should be at the center of the debate.