Budget hypocrisy

Let’s call this year’s budget process what it is: an assault on low-income and working poor Americans.

It’s certainly not about reducing the deficit. All the money saved by cutting programs that help vulnerable American families obtain health care, put food on the table and finance a college education will be more than consumed by extending tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans and corporations.

And it’s not about making government more efficient. Pork barrel projects are untouched. Funding for Alaska’s oft-cited bridge to nowhere is still in the budget, although references to the bridge itself have been dropped. Yet effective, efficient programs that serve populations other than powerful special interests remain targets for deep cuts.

Just before Thanksgiving, House leaders narrowly pushed through a $50 billion spending-cut bill that includes a $5 billion, 40 percent cut to federal funding for child support enforcement. That the Bush Administration has labeled the program highly efficient hasn’t saved it from the budget ax.

For every dollar the child support enforcement program spends, it recovers $4.38 in child support owed to children and custodial parents, who are overwhelmingly women. The program lifts one million people out of poverty each year. And it helps millions more get the child support to which they are entitled.

The proposed cuts to child support enforcement are ironic because reforms that Congress made to the program in 1996 have doubled child support collections for former welfare recipients. These reforms worked because Congress set performance standards for state programs and provided funding to meet them. At the time, lawmakers recognized that low-wage-earning mothers need assistance in collecting child support to stay off welfare and adequately provide for their children.

Slashing federal funding for child support enforcement would unravel a decade of progress and cost single moms and their children more money than the government would save. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the House’s $5 billion cut to the program would cost parents $8 billion in lost child support over five years and $24 billion over 10 years.

These unwise cuts come at a time when more women and their families are financially struggling. Poverty is up for the fourth straight year, according to the Census.

But apparently these truths mean little to Congress. The harsh reality is that Congress has focused on cutting programs that help low- and moderate-income Americans because they think they can get away with it. Poor women and their families aren’t a vocal constituency. Most are too busy trying to make ends meet to protest. So, programs that serve them are a politically expedient target for lawmakers who want to slash spending, claim fiscal responsibility and face little political consequence.

If lawmakers were serious about reining in deficits, they would reexamine tax policies that have shrunk federal revenues. They would not cut programs for the poor and pass additional tax cuts.

It’s not too late for Congress to reassess its priorities. The House and Senate have yet to reach agreements on the bills to cut spending on vital programs and give more tax cuts to the wealthy. As the holidays approach, Congress can and should reject both bills and resolve to develop a fair and responsible budget in the new year.

(Nancy Duff Campbell is co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., which is dedicated to advancing and protecting women’s rights.)