Fiscal Responsibility and Federally-Funded Services to the Working Poor

We are watching an amazing conversation taking place in Washington, D.C., and maybe other places, though it is never clear how much of the public shares the latest obsessions in the nation’s capital. The conversation is mostly a one-way “dialogue” on how to reduce the federal deficit and keep the national debt from increasing. It’s amazing because seven months ago this topic, while a dominant part of political discussion, was not a “crisis” in any way. At least it didn’t seem to be one when legislators were weighing the cost of the Bush tax cut extension. Listening to those who are resolute about cutting federal domestic non-security discretionary spending (there’s a mouthful), you would think that the United States is on the brink of filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy unless human services programs (including job training) are cut or eliminated.

I am not an economist, nor are most of the people telling us the economic sky is falling. While there seems to be disagreement among economists on exactly how dire the deficit situation is, most do not believe 1) that disaster is imminent nor 2) that cutting programs such as Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funding will relieve much of the problems caused by huge government deficits.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report March 1, 2011 that recommends streamlining government as a way of saving untold billions. If their recommendations were followed, I think we could see some savings from such efficiencies. But enough to wipe out trillion dollar deficits? Not a chance.

This year the final deficit will be somewhere between $1.1 trillion and $1.4 trillion. So if the House of Representatives’ H.R. 1, which they passed in January, became law, about $61 billion would be trimmed from the FY 2011 federal budget. Although I am not a mathematician, I am certain that such a cut would impact AT MOST about 6% of the FY 2011 deficit.

What do we get for that very small reduction? In the Employment and Training world, it would mean an end to YouthBuild, the dismantling of the mainline job training system, a reduction in Community Service Block Grant funding, and many other “savings.” The “savings” would have serious implications for the unemployed and underemployed poor and middle class American’s struggling to survive in this great recession.  It would also hinder our member agencies’ abilities to serve these individuals every day. While it is true that the National Farmworker Jobs Program was spared the budget axe, we would lose access to many of the other services migrant and seasonal farmworkers need to transition into self and family-sustaining jobs.

I am convinced that there does need to be something serious done to reduce these huge deficits, but I reject the idea that the only places one should be cutting are to essential services to the youth, poor, middle class, and elderly. We cannot and should not try to balance the budgets on their backs. It is especially galling when one realizes there is no way to balance the budget with such cuts. You could eliminate all of this spending and you would still be left with about a $700 billion deficit in 2011.

So what should be done? Well, first of all, every part of the federal government should take part in this “shared sacrifice.” Defense and Homeland Security have huge budgets. They must also be asked to take their “fair share” (whatever that is) of the deficit reduction.

Secondly, there really is no alternative to examining the revenue side of the equation. Many Americans have come to believe an inconvenient lie: that you can get the services you need from the federal government without paying for them. It is untrue—just look at the spike in the deficits that followed the Bush tax cuts of 2001-2. They are being repeated under the Obama tax cut extenders, enacted this past December, that allow our nation’s wealthiest to continue to benefit disproportionately.

This conversation that has gripped Washington needs to become a two-way dialogue. Those who understand that at most only 6% of the current deficit can be eliminated by the draconian cuts proposed in H.R. 1 need to speak loudly and educate their fellow Americans. And, we need to admit that there can be some efficiencies in government by streamlining and consolidating programs, including those in the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security. But we also need to come to the realization that there is a reason for taxes and for raising more revenue by closing loopholes. The reason is to have a balance between what we want to get from our government and the resources we have to pay for them.

We need to be crystal clear that we will not tolerate cutting programs and services vital to the working poor in order to give people the false impression they are doing something about solving the federal deficit.

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About David Strauss, AFOP's Executive Director

David A. Strauss has actively advocated for America’s farmworkers and served AFOP member agencies as the Executive Director since 2000. In addition to his role as the Executive Director, David is also on the steering committees of the Child Labor Coalition and the National Farmworker Alliance, as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. David has a Master of Arts in public administration and a B.A. in political science. He and his family live in Rockville, Maryland.
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