Now for the Hard Part

Jan 26, 2011

By Alan W. Houseman

During his State of the Union speech Tuesday, President Obama addressed the economy and proposed freezing domestic discretionary spending for five years as a step toward restoring balance to the budget.

This is one of many deficit reduction proposals that have emerged in the last couple months. In early December, the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (deficit reduction commission) issued a comprehensive report on balancing the budget, and the conservative Republican Study Committee this week called for slashing spending to 2008 levels.

Against this backdrop is the stark reality that millions of families are struggling. Around 15 million people are unemployed. That number spikes to nearly 25 million if you count those who are underemployed or involuntarily working part-time. Further, the nation's middle class is shrinking. More than 43 million of us are poor.  We simply can't talk about the nation's spending priorities without also recognizing and determining how to address these harsh truths.

While the president was right to use his SOTU address to lay out a proposal for addressing the deficit, the real challenge will be in the coming months as the White House and our other elected officials iron out plans for fiscal discipline without stymieing the fragile economic recovery or harming the most vulnerable among us.

The president acknowledged that his proposed spending freeze would be painful, accounts for a small percent of the federal budget (12 percent), and alone would not solve the budget crisis. Importantly, he also said balancing the budget cannot be done on the "backs of the most vulnerable Americans." Similarly, the deficit reduction commission in its report stated that in balancing the budget, the nation must "protect the truly disadvantaged."

CLASP agrees with these sentiments. At a time when 25 percent of the nation's children are poor, we cannot afford to disinvest in proven programs that provide needed high quality child care and education opportunities. At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table, we cannot afford to disinvest in programs that connect people to the education and training they need to access good jobs or the resources and services they need to meet their very basic needs. At a time when poverty is rising, we cannot afford to disinvest in poverty alleviating programs such as Head Start, SNAP and TANF.

As President Obama said in his speech, "the challenges we face are bigger than party and bigger than politics."

In a couple of weeks, President Obama will release his formal budget proposal and later in the spring, Congress will release its proposal for the broad outlines of the budget for FY 2012.

At this critical moment in time, these proposals should not take the easy route and simply call for cuts in all non-defense domestic discretionary programs. They should also reflect the kind of nation we want to be. We should aspire to be a nation where very few children live in poverty and vulnerable families have access to opportunity and the resources and services they need to move out of poverty. Most importantly, we must set a course for shared long-term economic prosperity.


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