Untangling Low-Income Budget Cut Claims

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Anti-poverty advocates say millions of low-income Americans could be hurt by proposed spending cuts approved by the House earlier this year, but some of their claims are difficult to nail down, complicating an already contentious budget debate.

Here's one example. The House bill approved as part of a $61 billion package of spending cuts would provide no new money for vouchers to house homeless veterans. Senate Democrats called that "unacceptable," reckless" "heartless" — even "immoral."

"If you get rid of this program, this is 10,000 vouchers — 10,000 veterans — who literally could be in the streets and die, get very ill," Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said at a recent news conference.

What she didn't say is that the House did exactly what President Obama asked for in his 2011 budget. He requested a one-year break in the program because of a backlog in getting veterans into housing.

"So any kind of characterization that we're putting vets out in the cold is absolutely untrue," Iowa Republican Rep. Tom Latham said on the House floor in February. He said that of 30,000 vouchers already available for homeless veterans, 11,000 had yet to be used.

The Obama administration says the number of unused vouchers is more like 8,000. It also has changed its position since the president submitted his budget last year. It says the backlog in the program is pretty much gone now, and more vouchers are needed.

There is similar confusion over claims made about other cuts.

Disability advocates say 10,000 severely disabled individuals would lose Department of Housing and Urban Development rental assistance under the House bill, and that most of them will be put out of their homes.

"We certainly hope they wouldn't be," says Andrew Sperling of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "But housing authorities are faced with difficulties when there isn't enough money coming from HUD to renew the vouchers they have."

Sperling says that would require $112 million but that the money isn't in the House bill.

House appropriators say the money is in the bill. It's just hidden in a different, much bigger account.

Sperling says maybe so, but if that's the case, he'd like to see it in writing so that there's no confusion when it comes time to hand out the funds. In a chaotic budget debate, he and other advocates don't want to take anything on faith.

"We're in an environment in which everyone always assures you the sky is falling if they don't get what they want," says Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia. "And that's for those who want to cut and those who don't want to cut."

Kingston heads an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees a program providing monthly food packages to poor senior citizens, pregnant women and children. Anti-hunger groups say 81,000 people would lose those benefits under the House bill.

Kingston says he doesn't think that's accurate. He thinks many of those people could probably get food help through other programs, such as food stamps.

But Frank Kubik, who manages food aid at Focus Hope in Detroit, says it doesn't work that way. He says he serves many homebound seniors who can't use food stamps because they can't get to the store.

"Detroit is known as a food desert. There's a lack of supermarkets here. Public transportation is not what we'd like it to be, there's safety issues for seniors," Kubik says.

And he says for other low-income seniors who do get food stamps, the food packages supplement their diets with much-needed items, such as milk, juice, pasta and canned vegetables.

"To pull it away from them would be devastating," Kubik says. He and others are trying to make that case with lawmakers, but it's not easy with so many competing claims. Indeed, a recent congressional study found 18 different — and sometimes overlapping — federal food aid programs. House appropriators say they want to get rid of that duplication.

Also fighting cuts is Youth Build, a $100 million program that trains troubled youth in construction skills and helps them to get their GEDs. The House bill would provide no money for the program this year, which puzzles 19-year-old Kyle Johnson. He is among several Youth Build participants putting up drywall in a housing project in Washington, D.C.

Johnson says that without the program, "I'd probably be out here in these streets somewhere trying to hustle, do something negative, you know, not positive."

Now he's looking forward to getting a job and setting a good example for his new son.

"I just feel as though I can teach him some basic life skills," he says. "My father died when I was 8, so I ain't never get to learn from him as I wanted to."

Youth Build says some 10,000 young people won't get help if the cut goes through and that will cost taxpayers much more in the long run.

But House appropriators insist that HUD has other programs that provide similar services and can fill in the gap. HUD says the programs aren't the same at all. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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