As White House watchers waited for the Monday drop of the Trump administration’s 2021 budget, the questions on the minds of policy wonks wasn’t whether the White House would try to slash the social safety net. It was how and by how much.
The results were never going to be good for those who support the social safety net, and the reality was harsh.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget included significant cuts to health care programs like Medicaid and Medicare as well as the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It also targeted the Environmental Protection Agency, cutting more than a quarter of its budget.
Congress ultimately holds the nation’s purse strings and hasn’t gone along with the president’s budget proposals in the previous two years, restoring most of the money that he’s attempted to remove. However, they are limited in what they are able to do.
Lawmakers and White House leaders backed themselves into a corner on what’s called “non-discretionary defense spending” — a cumbersome phrase, abbreviated herein as “NDD,” for a myriad of programs that touch the lives of every American, but mostly those with low incomes. From food assistance to housing vouchers, education to veterans’ health care, NDD provides the core of America’s social safety net, such as it is.
And there probably won’t be enough money for it.
Congress will have roughly $11 billion in new NDD funding to play with for programs in 2021, the consequence of a 2011 law passed by President Barack Obama in the middle of the Great Recession as a way to avoid defaulting on the national debt.
That may be just enough to shore up the increased cost of veteran health care, but not much more, said Robert Greenstein, outgoing executive director of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Congress has traditionally voted to support veterans health care, but other funding would be flat or potentially see cuts, Greenstein told reporters.
Over the past three years, the Trump administration has embraced opportunities to reduce the size and funding of programs meant to help the poorest Americans. Recent rule changes to the food benefits program would kick an estimated 700,000 people off the program. A proposed modification from the Department of Housing and Urban Development would eliminate housing benefits for households of mixed immigration status. Flexibility in the Medicaid expansion program has kicked thousands off of health insurance for low-income people.
Trump targeting social safety nets was unsurprising but shows him affirmed by polling numbers and emboldened by a Senate impeachment acquittal.
Budgets are policy documents — at the end of the day, it is Congress that makes most of the decisions when it comes to allocating funds. But the proposals indicate what the president wants and where the president wants the country to go.
Walking into Monday’s announcement, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) had a few questions.
Would the Trump administration target programs that help low-income people, like housing assistance? Would there be cuts to Medicaid and Medicare, despite Trump’s explicit promises to preserve the latter? Would he propose investments in infrastructure? What would the impact be on racial disparities in wealth and overall inequality?
According to an analysis by The Washington Post, the current budget would decimate programs meant to help low-income people, reducing food benefits by $181 million over the course of a decade and removing hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare. That’s despite Trump’s repeated promises — including in his recent State of the Union address — to preserve the highly popular health insurance program for older Americans.
Possible cuts to non-defense discretionary spending could majorly impact housing resources, even as areas like Seattle and King County are facing a crisis of homelessness with existing funding.
“Housing assistance programs would very much be at risk,” said Sharon Parrott of CBPP.
There is already a looming gap between the people who need help with housing and the people who get it, but the problem would be greatly exacerbated by cuts to spending, Parrott said.
That gap is very evident in Seattle and King County, two places that have grown rapidly without building a commensurate amount of housing and struggle with affordability. According to consultants McKinsey & Company, the root cause of the region’s homelessness is a lack of housing affordable for “extremely low-income” households, those making less than 30 percent of the area median income.
While the proposed budget is likely to be revised by lawmakers, fixing the problem means more than pushing back on draconian cuts — it means investing in housing and other aspects of the social safety net.
Democratic presidential hopefuls are calling for such investments. The question is, do voters approve of their vision or that of the current administration?
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
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