Op-ed: Why Congress must lift the spending caps to help low-income families


April 5, 2019

Editor’s note: The following op-ed by CHN Executive Director Deborah Weinstein first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

Every year, the Coalition on Human needs compares funding for well over 150 human needs programs starting in fiscal year 2010 and continuing to the current fiscal year (this year, 2019).

CHN uses 2010 as a benchmark because that is the year before the Budget Control Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Obama. That law called for automatic cuts in spending if Congress could not curtail spending on its own.

This year, CHN tracked spending for 184 human needs programs. CHN found that 131 of the programs, or 71 percent, lost ground since 2010. And 54 programs were cut by 25 percent or more.

Further cuts could happen, and soon. Unless Congress acts this year, harsh spending caps will go into effect for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, reducing all domestic/international appropriations by $55 billion in 2020 (or $70 billion, adjusting for inflation) below 2019 levels.

Looking back to 2010, and in more recent years, we can ask, what are the human impacts of reduced spending for human needs programs? Let’s examine just three areas of support that are crucial to helping low-income families improve their economic situation—child care, affordable housing, and job training.

In 2010, an average of 1.7 million children had access to affordable child care in any given month. In fiscal year 2017 we were only serving 1.3 million children. Affordable housing is an area that has been particularly hard hit. Although the appropriations bill passed and signed into law in February provides money for 19,000 new housing vouchers, the sad fact remains that we lost an estimated 50,000 housing vouchers between March 2017 and September 2018.

Job training is another area where our investments have fallen off since 2010. Middle-skill jobs—jobs that require more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree—make up 54 percent of jobs in the U.S. economy.

But 36 million adults—including 24 million in the workforce—lack the skills to enter middle-skill training and obtain well-paying jobs. And what have we done? We cut major youth and adult training programs by 16 percent from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2019.

If we are to provide opportunities for more people to work in steady jobs with good pay, we need to expand job training for adults (including older workers) and youth, not cut fiscal year 2019 funding for those programs by more than $1.5 billion below the fiscal year 2010 levels. With rent burdens rising, we need to increase affordable housing, not allow public housing maintenance to erode by more than $1 billion compared to 2010. From nutrition to education to public health, we should be investing in meeting people’s needs in order to sustain economic growth and shared prosperity. Rigid spending caps prevent the investments we need.

Looking at the bigger picture, since 2010, we’ve seen an erosion of funding  for programs that help families and in no small part help drive our economy. These programs include education, home heating and cooling for low-income households, many public health programs, services for people with disabilities and elders, child welfare services, juvenile justice programs, and certain nutrition, housing and homelessness assistance programs.

For fiscal years 2018 and 2019, Congress wisely agreed to lift spending caps, and we can look at child care as one beneficiary of this decision. In 2018, funding for child care doubled to $5.2 billion compared to its level in 2010, even after adjusting for inflation. That increase was estimated to allow an additional 151,000 children to receive low-cost child care.  But even that important increase did not restore the hundreds of thousands of child care placements lost since fiscal year 2010, and in fiscal year 2019 a small uptick in funding for child care was not enough to withstand one year’s worth of inflation. Congress needs to build on the progress, not let the cycle of reductions begin again. The only way to invest in the services we need is to lift the caps.

Budget and Appropriations
child care
Home Energy Assistance
Housing and Homelessness
Job Training and Education