Republicans Define 'Heartlessness' with Latest Budget Proposals

'Lower-Priority Spending' takes on new meaning as Paul Ryan and John Boehner dominate budget debate

When Republican Congressman Paul Ryan released his budget, he charged six House committees with finding $309 billion in spending cuts over ten years in order to avert $55 billion in military cuts scheduled for January 2013 under a bipartisan agreement. He wrote that these cuts would be found in "lower-priority spending."

On Thursday, House Republicans approved the cuts along a party-line vote, revealing exactly what they consider to be "lower-priority spending."

These cuts should be viewed in the context of sparing a defense budget that conservative columnist George Will observes is "about 43 percent of the world's total military spending" and "more than the combined defense spending of the next 17 nations, many of which are US allies." Even with the $55 billion in cuts that would start in January, the defense budget would still be $472 billion (not including war costs)--three times more than China spends.

But for House Republicans, their preferred alternative of cutting lower-priority spending means... a $36 billion cut in food stamps (SNAP), which largely helps the elderly, disabled people, children and the working poor. Two million people would lose their benefits entirely and 44 million would have their benefits reduced--the current average benefit is $4 per person per day. Two hundred and eighty thousand low-income children would also lose automatic access to free school breakfast and lunch. The bill also cuts the SNAP employment and training program by 72 percent, making it more difficult for jobless recipients to find work. It's important to note that SNAP kept 5 million people from poverty in 2010 and reduced poverty rates by 8 percent in 2009.

Cuts to lower-priority spending means... denying the Child Tax Credit to 5.5 million children--that's an average of $1,800 out of the pockets of working families earning sub-poverty wages. The Child Tax Credit lifted 1.3 million children out of poverty in 2009.

...for House Republicans, their preferred alternative of cutting lower-priority spending means... a $36 billion cut in food stamps (SNAP), which largely helps the elderly, disabled people, children and the working poor. Two million people would lose their benefits entirely and 44 million would have their benefits reduced--the current average benefit is $4 per person per day. Two hundred and eighty thousand low-income children would also lose automatic access to free school breakfast and lunch.

Cuts to lower-priority spending means... eliminating the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG), which 11 million children rely on--including 4 million children who receive child care assistance, 1.7 million receiving protective services and 451,000 children in foster care. It also funds meals on wheels programs, services that help protect over a half-million seniors from abuse, and community-based care that allows elderly and disabled people to remain in their homes rather than be placed in expensive institutions. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, roughly 23 million people receive services funded in whole or part by the SSBG.

"When one in five US kids live in poverty, it is not the time to slash investments in their healthcare, nutrition, economic stability, childcare and safety," said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions.

"There are a lot of other ways Republicans could have found their savings," said Melissa Boteach, director of the Half in Ten campaign to cut poverty by 50 percent over ten years. "For example, one year of tax breaks for millionaires could pay for ten years of nutrition assistance. But they didn't consider closing a single tax loophole, or look at subsidies to agribusiness, or the oil and gas industries. In the end, House Republicans are essentially saying that low-income school children, seniors struggling with hunger, foster kids, people with disabilities--that these people are lower priorities than preserving obsolete weapons systems or protecting tax breaks for the very richest among us."

This budget won't pass the Senate, and it wouldn't be signed by President Obama if it did. But it does tell Americans exactly where House Republicans stand and it makes for a heck of a GOP fundraising/love letter to wealthy donors: "Please remember us generously this campaign season so that we can keep remembering you."

Half in Ten and others will follow up with opportunities for you to let your representatives know how you feel about their vote. At a moment when 46 million people live in poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four), and 105 million Americans--over one in three--live on less than $45,000 for a family of four, this budget deserves and needs a loud response; especially since the Democrats haven't exactly offered a dogged fight to protect their least powerful and most vulnerable constituents either.

An Equal Voice

With House Republicans having no intention to listen to the voices of people living in poverty, and even Senate Democrats in the Agriculture Committee voting to cut SNAP by $4.5 billion over ten years, thousands of low-income people are determined to organize and be heard on May 20 in their own communities.

That's the day of the Equal Voice Online National Convention. Tens of thousands of low-income families from across the country are expected to turn out to create a national platform that reflects their views. In 2008, a similar effort was undertaken and 15,000 families participated in Los Angeles, Chicago and Birmingham. In the run-up to that event, sixty-five town hall-style meetings were held in twelve states and eleven languages. Not only did the 2008 convention successfully create the first Equal Voice National Family Platform but afterwards participating groups formed networks in their own communities.

"In south Texas, for example, these community-based organizations found that when they joined forces legislators listened to them," says Kathleen Baca, communications director at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which sponsors the convention. "They took the original platform that was developed at the convention and created their own for their region, and used it to organize. As a result, they were able to beat back nearly 100 anti-immigration bills."

Baca says similar networks are now established in Chicago, Los Angeles and Alabama.

With the recession, and poor families once again being largely ignored by both parties, families felt an urgency to hold another convention now--this time online in order to make it easier for people to participate. But they still want to gather in-person, too, and Baca says that there are thirty confirmed events with anywhere from ten to 500 people expected at a venue. Sites include churches, community and convention centers, homes, restaurants and coffee houses.

Equal Voice 2012 will use a Livestream application that allows anyone to view the convention live; chat; and vote on platform issues online or by SMS text, Twitter or smartphone. The event will be live-streamed from Birmingham; McAllen, Texas; and Seattle. No candidates, no keynotes, no celebrities--just families speaking up and organizing.

"So many families again will be speaking out. The question is: Will people listen to them?" says Baca.

National Community Action Month--Get Involved

Community Action Agencies (CAAs) are nonprofit private and public organizations with their fingers on the pulse of poverty. They provide direct support for more than 34.5 million of the 46 million people living in poverty in the United States today.

Each CAA is governed locally and offers a different mix of programs and services, including: emergency aid like food pantries and domestic violence counseling, education programs like Head Start and youth mentoring, day care and job training programs, income management and housing assistance, healthcare clinics, WIC and more.

This month, CAAs across the country are celebrating National Community Action Month by hosting poverty symposia, town-hall meetings and other events to raise awareness about poverty and how CAAs respond to it. This is particularly important right now because these agencies face significant budget cuts at the local, state and federal levels and the public needs to understand the vital role they play in struggling communities.

If you want to get involved in a very direct way--helping people who are living in poverty--there are a lot of opportunities right now to learn about CAAs and take action.

For example, in a four-county area around Dayton, Ohio, CAAs are currently looking for volunteers to deliver meals or assist in a Head Start classroom. Preble County will have an open house on May 15 and Greene County has a Community Action Day on May 25.

John Bennett, communications director for the Community Action Partnership of the Greater Dayton Area, says there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer with programs or advocate on issues affecting people living in poverty.

The Southeast Kansas Community Action Program (SEK-CAP) will hold an Open House on May 12. It has opportunities for volunteers to assist with housing, transportation, early childhood education, community development, family supports and emergency shelter.

"We can also design activities around a volunteer's specific skills," says Becky Gray, SEK-CAP's director of research, planning and grants development. Gray suggests that people who want to get involved email her here.

The Green Hills Community Action Agency in rural Missouri serves nine counties. The agency is currently focused on many green projects, including educating children about recycling, gardening, nutrition and alternative energy sources; working with communities on energy conservation; and community gardening to benefit local families, a food pantry and a senior center.

Finally, the Cayuga/Seneca Community Action Agency in Auburn, New York, might be having the coolest event--an eighty-mile Motorcycle Run on May 20 to raise donations for its food pantries. There are plenty of ways for volunteers to get involved with this agency and many were recently honored at a Volunteer Recognition event.

The range of services CAAs provide and the number of people they reach is pretty stunning. You can find one in your area and start directly helping people who are living in poverty today.

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