Republican budget cuts promote ‘trickle up’ poverty

Cuts to federal housing programs will increase homelessness. Combine increased homelessness with vacant public housing and you have a cancer that will spread, reducing property values in communities across our nation. Or consider cuts to unemployment and food stamps. These are likely to cause grocery stores in urban, suburban, and rural areas—many of which serve the middle class—to either close or lower the quality and selection of their wares, just to preserve profit margin. 

A persistently high unemployment rate may well also translate into desperation and increased property and personal crimes. Not only will more crime lower our quality of life, it will drive up the cost of local policing. That could mean higher local taxes meet crime-fighting demands.

Public schools were once the first choice of middle class families; these schools are the first to fail as poverty rises. Where school was once free, poverty forces many middle class families today to shell out thousands of dollars to educate their children. These new costs are a fact of life for more and more middle class Americans as poverty spreads across the country. Sadly it’s at just the time they can least afford it.

Let’s be clear. No one rejoices at the prospect of spending billions of dollars for subsidized housing or food stamps or Medicaid. And Glenn Beck acolytes and progressives alike can agree that good paying jobs are better for families than a plethora of government subsidies. But the problem is that our economy and the policies that drive it are not creating enough decent paying jobs for all able-bodied Americans to cover their basic household expenses. Federal subsidies for basic needs make up for the shortcomings in our economy. And they help a surprising number of people. 

To be sure, we can find ways to run these programs more effectively and more efficiently. And that’s where the hard work of budget cutting should concentrate. The ubiquity of technology, even in low-income communities, presents a huge opportunity to shed administrative costs. We should also find ways to better align these programs so that they enable workers and their families to more successfully move out of poverty. If we are serious about protecting and expanding the middle class, then the tough discussions on how to overhaul the delivery of these income-support programs need to commence.

But it’s simply not in the interest of most Americans to swing an ax at these programs amid a nascent economic recovery. Today, over 10 million Americans are collecting unemployment, and nearly that many citizens are in apartments with rents subsidized by the federal government. More than 40 million Americans put food on the table with the aid of food stamps. Fifty million Americans are able to go to the doctor or the hospital because of the Medicaid program. And fully one in six Americans is dependent on federal and state support for their basic necessities of life. 

The consequences of reducing federal income supports will be devastating on the poorest among us. But the impact will not be contained to them. Remember: Ronald Reagan tried to convince us that wealth trickles down. His enduring legacy, however, is that poverty trickles up. 

Donna Cooper is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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