House Budget Committee and Anti-Poverty Programs

May 07, 2014

By Lauren French

Can we solve poverty by cutting programs designed to alleviate it?  The 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty has given the powerful House Budget Committee and its chair, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) a “hook” to drive attention to such federal programs  and a platform for discussing whether and to what degree to continue investments in them.

Ryan has released his budget and held a set of hearings. The latest hearing, held April 30 was entitled “Lessons from the Frontlines.”

The hearing witnesses offered their perspectives on the role of federal funding in fighting poverty. The first two witnesses to testify, Robert Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, and Bishop Dr. Shirley Holloway, founder of House of Help City of Hope, work with individuals facing a variety of issues including drug addiction, incarceration, and homelessness. Both expressed criticism of federal anti-poverty spending and advocated for faith-based programs. Woodson testified that “compassion for the poor cannot be defined by how much we spend on them.” Holloway agreed with Woodson, adding that “love is greater than any dollar.”

In response to these witnesses, Budget Committee member Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) voiced her concerns noting , “we also need public policies that provide opportunity for all.”   Private charities themselves argue they cannot possibly make up for large federal cuts.  For example, the Ryan budget cuts would slash the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP,” formerly known as food stamps) by $137 billion over 10 years. Another witness, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, adamantly defended federal programs such as Head Start and the Earned Income Tax Credit. “The War on Poverty has lifted millions of children and families out of poverty,” Edelman testified, “and I am very concerned that 50 years later some people think the best way forwards is backwards – trying to unravel the very investments that have had such impact and given millions of children a new lease on life and hope for the future.”

Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” budget makes profound cuts to those investments.   A recent analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the budget plan would achieve the vast bulk of its “savings”  by making cuts  to programs that serve low-income families and individuals; in fact, fully  69 percent of non-defense cuts would be made to  such programs

At the hearing,  committee Democrats challenged the “Path to Prosperity”  budget plan and stressed the need for federal funding as central to  an effective anti-poverty agenda. “We want the same thing as the other side wants, which is to get rid of programs that don’t work,” explained Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), “But damn it, many of these programs do work and many of these programs are the difference between life and death in our community.”

Click here to watch a video recording of the hearing.  

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