Letter to Washington: Don't cut deficits on backs of poor

WASHINGTON - The Coalition on Human Needs and other defenders of the poor wrote to President Obama and the Republican and Democratic leaders of Congress June 27 urging them to reject any cutbacks in low-income benefit programs that would increase poverty and hunger in their current negotiations on deficit reductions.

The letter is signed by scores of low-income advocacy groups, many part of a newly formed religious coalition called "Circle of Protection." The letter warns, "Cuts in programs that help low-income people meet their basic needs or provide them with opportunity to obtain decent education and employment inevitably increase poverty and hardship."

The letter points out that negotiations on deficit reductions in the past 30 years have been guided by a bipartisan agreement that spending cuts should not increase poverty. But this time, the Republican right is driving ruthlessly to slash the low-income safety net. It concludes, "We call on Congress and the White House to commit to the principle of protecting low-income people in deficit reduction."

The message comes as Obama exerts pressure on Republicans to drop their efforts to extort sweeping cuts in Social Security, Medicare and other federal programs as the price for their agreement to an increase in the debt ceiling. Obama is demanding an agreement by July 1, before Congress recesses for the Fourth of July.

Coalition Executive Director Deborah Weinstein assailed the "fanaticism among those who want to shrink the government, reduce its capacity, in a way that, frankly, weakens our nation."

The proposed 2012 federal budget approved by the Republican-majority House, she continued, "is an example of that kind of fanaticism. It makes cuts in program after program that protect the vulnerable, but it also dramatically cuts taxes for the richest individuals and corporations."

It reduces the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent, she noted, "and that will cost the Treasury $2 trillion over ten years," a huge addition to the Federal deficit. "That's from Chairman (Paul) Ryan who touts himself as someone concerned about deficits," she said.

This is a program, she continued, obsessed with "shrinking government and further concentrating wealth and power in a very few hands. To us, that is un-American. The threats to our nation are so very grave."

The National Low Income Housing Coalition appended it's own message addressed to Obama and Vice President Biden demanding that they "hold firm and prevent harmful cuts or caps to low income programs in the negotiations to reduce the deficit." The coalition urges the administration to "insist on fair increases in revenues to prevent reckless cuts to housing programs, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and other essential services."

One signer of the letter, Vicki Escarra, president and CEO of Feeding America, wrote, "With more of our nation's men, women and children facing hunger today than ever before, it would be unconscionable for the Congress and administration to cut the first line of defense against hunger in America."

Escarra added, "Feeding America food banks are already overburdened as we struggle to keep pace with historic levels of need for emergency assistance, and private charity cannot fill the gap if nutrition assistance programs are cut."

Federal nutrition programs "are the difference between enough to eat and not for one in four Americans," she concluded.

Other organizations signing the letter include the Children's Defense Fund, United Way, National Council of La Raza, Families USA and the NAACP.

Funding for Food Stamps, now called SNAP, was increased in 2009 and early 2010 while the Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate. Those increases, Weinstein said, "did a remarkable job of preventing a dire increase in food hardship at the same time that poverty and unemployment were rising."

In 2008, the rate of food hardship had risen to 19.5 percent; in 2009, it fell to 18.3 percent. In 2010, it dropped again to 18 percent. Weinstein said 18 percent is still a "terribly high" rate of food hardship. But hunger fighters had expected "a gigantic increase in hunger."

 The fact that the rate fell "proves that these nutrition programs really do work," she said. A mother receiving SNAP benefits told Weinstein, "These nutrition programs enabled me to buy food until the end of the month."

Ryan's budget proposes to transform SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from an entitlement with automatic increases in funds to meet increased need, into a block grant, a fixed amount of money distributed to the states no matter how many are hungry.

The states, grappling with budget shortfalls, would be forced either to tighten eligibility, terminating benefits for an estimated 8 million current recipients, or they could reduce benefits across the board.  "A family of four would lose $147 per month in food benefits, a devastating cut," Weinstein said.

The Coalition for Human Needs and its affiliates are struggling to block Ryan's savage cuts. "It is inconceivable that any elected official would even consider cutting back programs with such a proven record of success in combating hunger."

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