Budget cuts are nothing to laugh about

While all kinds of theatrics go on, some of us are waiting to see what will happen to the tiny fraction of the federal budget that is dedicated to the life-saving international health programs, emergency aid, poverty reduction, climate change adaptation and economic development assistance. Oxfam America’s doesn’t take funding from the US government, so our budget doesn’t depend on the answer. But we care because these programs make a big difference for poor people and developing countries. 

Year after year, cutting international assistance is a talking point for politicians: “We have to take care of America before we send American money all over the world,” say some members of Congress. But it’s an easy thing to say, given the misperceptions Americans have about international assistance. 

According to recent polling, Americans think 27 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid. Asked if they support cuts, most say yes. The funding level Americans settle on for foreign aid is somewhere between 10 and 13 percent of the federal budget. 

The only problem, of course, is that the ENTIRE international affairs budget, which includes diplomacy and development, is just about 1 percent of the budget. And less than half of that is spent on poverty-focused development aid. So armed with the facts, voters could actually support INCREASING spending on foreign assistance by 1,000 percent? Given that Americans spend around the same amount on caring for their lawns as they do for programs that improve livelihoods and create lasting solutions to world poverty, I would hope they do.

Cutting half of foreign aid – or even cutting all of it – wouldn’t do much for the federal budget deficit. But it doesn’t stop politicians from supporting the foolish decision to cut it. 

Pretending to close the yawning federal budget gap with cuts to foreign assistance is a terrible prank to play on:

• 5 million children and family members who could be denied treatment for preventative interventions for malaria,

• 3,500 mothers, more than 40,000 children under 5 in danger of dying due to reduced child survival interventions,

• 400,000 people who would be turned away from life-saving treatment for HIV/AIDS.

Even the threat of the government shutting down is disruptive and does damage.  Important development and anti-poverty programs have already been put on hold due to the uncertainty; an innovative food security program focused on rice production in Cambodia has indefinitely postponed its March 28 launch, for example.   

April fools is for laughs and kicks. But the pranks should stop when it comes to cutting life saving assistance. 

Gawain Kripke is the policy director for Oxfam America in Washington.

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