The President’s Tilted Playing Field

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Should a 19-year-old who is living on his own after leaving foster care have as much of a chance to get $5,000 for education as a millionaire has to get a $95,000 federal tax cut? Should cost-effective juvenile delinquency prevention programs be zeroed out of the federal budget, while each taxpayer in the top 1 percent of income receives an average tax cut of nearly $400,000 over the next four years?

Officials here in Washington like to say they want to “level the playing field.” But the president’s proposed fiscal 2005 budget, along with other proposals before Congress, would push poor children and youth toward the swampy bottom of a tilted playing field and give the wealthiest Americans a smooth elevator ride to a comfortable skybox.

The president’s budget is filled with wrong choices. The federal budget ought to be the nation’s action plan for expanding opportunity. It should ensure that every child can have enough nutritious food to eat, a decent place to live, health care, protection from abuse or neglect, and a high-quality education from preschool through college. The president’s budget proposal makes cuts in all these areas over the next five years.

An “opportunity for all” budget would invest in job training and development, child care, and transportation assistance so that low-income parents can get and keep jobs. The budget shrinks these services as well.

So, what is growing in this budget? Tax cuts for those perched at the top, primarily by making permanent the “temporary” cuts that were enacted for 2001 to 2003. The average tax cut for Joe Millionaire (anyone earning at least $1 million a year) would amount to more than $60,000 in 2005 and about $95,000 in 2009.

By that time, on the other hand, funding for nutrition assistance through the Women, Infants and Children program would fall $308 million short of the cost of reaching the 7.8 million infants, children and pregnant women who are served today. At least 360,000 fewer low-income children would receive child care in 2009. Youth employment and training funds, after dropping by more than one-quarter over the past two years, would be level-funded starting in fiscal 2005 – with their value eroded more and more each year by inflation. If current youth employment funding through the Workforce Investment Act were divided among the nation’s 3 million out-of-school youth, each would be able to purchase $300 worth of vocational services. No level playing field there.

Many economists forecast that making the temporary tax cuts permanent will not spur growth, but will drag the economy down over the long term, because the exploding federal deficit will increase businesses’ cost of borrowing. Would you rather keep the tax cuts and cut federal spending to avoid the deficit? Economists at the Tax Policy Center have done the arithmetic. In 2014 alone, the tax cuts would cost $400 billion. If that were paid for by cutting federal programs, all you would have to do is cut Social Security benefits almost in half, or eliminate federal spending on Medicaid altogether, or lop off eight out of every 10 dollars spent on all the programs that need annual appropriations – including most job training, independent living services, housing assistance, education and other efforts aimed at youth.

If the public knew about this math, the proposal to make these tax cuts permanent would not pass the laugh test. But with a straight face, the Bush administration and the House of Representatives’ leadership want to enshrine the tax cuts by allowing their costs to continue into the future without having to pay for them by raising other revenues or by cutting spending.

They want to reduce the deficit by cutting programs. Services that receive annual appropriations would be strangled by funding that, at best, will not keep pace with inflation. Expansion of basic benefits like Medicaid and food stamps will only occur if that expansion is paid for by cuts in other basic benefits. For instance, the commonsense choice of paying for a modest food stamp expansion by slightly reducing the tax cuts is not even allowed under the proposed House budget rules.

Young people are being hurt by this refusal to make sensible choices. The Opportunity for All budget campaign, coordinated by the Coalition on Human Needs, is working to ensure that our nation remembers that America’s future depends on investments in the health, safety and education of its youth.

Deborah Weinstein is executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of organizations working to address the needs of low-income and other vulnerable people.