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Don't balance the budget on the backs of the poor

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How come, when Congress figures it must trim the federal budget deficit, it first turns to cutting programs that benefit primarily the poor?

The poor are numerous - 37 million in 2004, or 12.7 percent of the total United States population. That number was up from the year before.

Yet Congress (the House especially) has focused on chopping programs that serve low-income families with children, or low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities.

"It's outrageous," says David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World.

Mr. Beckmann and others point out that many poor people don't vote. They vote proportionately less than do middle-income or rich people. The poor, sometimes with two jobs or maybe doing manual work, often have difficulty getting themselves to polling stations. Many are undereducated and find it hard to follow the complexities and consequences of congressional budget procedures.

Even if more poor people did go to the polls, many members of Congress could act as if those votes don't matter. Over the years, House districts have been redrawn to ensure the reelection prospects of members. The poor sometimes are piled into one "safe" district, often Democratic. Few low-income people are left in prosperous suburban districts, many of which are Republican.

"They don't have to give a hoot for what happens to the poor," says Beckmann.

Moreover, the poor certainly can't afford to make the big campaign contributions that are important to politicians in an era when election costs have become astronomical.

Nonetheless, there are political limits on how much money Congress can chop from the safety net for the poor - such programs as Medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Child Care, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance, and so on.

House Republican leaders, hoping to demonstrate their conservative prowess, had planned to cut $50 billion, substantially from such low-income programs, over five years. That's up from the $35 billion called for in April's budget resolution. But in the face of opposition from Democrats and some moderate Republicans, both of whom face reelection next fall, leaders couldn't get enough support earlier this month.

Senators, faced with rich, middle-class, and poor voters, have been less ambitious in planning cuts from entitlement programs to low-income people.

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