Missing From the Debate Over the Deficit: The Human Costs of Budget Cuts

06/02/2011 10:24 am ET | Updated Aug 02, 2011

By Deborah Weinstein and Melissa Boteach

Listening to the politically-charged debate over the budget deficit and federal debt limit it's easy to forget that every decision to cut funding for human needs programs affects thousands, sometimes millions, of people.

They are people like Terrence who went from a childhood spent in the juvenile justice system to a productive adulthood because he enrolled in a two year federally-funded Job Corps program. Today, he is gainfully employed and starting his own company. He's paying taxes and creating jobs instead of living in prison at taxpayer expense.

And they are people like Kayla who has grown into a vibrant young woman thanks to a host of federal programs, including WIC, food stamps, Head Start and Medicaid, which covered treatment for her epilepsy and her siblings' asthma. Today, Pell Grants allow her to attend Ohio State University and a disabilities transit program helps her get where she needs to go since her epilepsy prevents her from driving. Says Kayla: "Without federal aid and grants I would not be the citizen I am today."

If programs like those Kayla and Terrence rely on become victims of the budget ax, millions of people struggling to overcome similarly disadvantaged backgrounds will face dismal futures.

And that isn't just their problem. Cutting programs that help feed, educate and heal our people hurts not just those who benefit from them directly, but our country's long-term prosperity.

Every person who has benefited from a federal program has a story to tell about how it shaped their lives. Unfortunately, right now it's hard to hear their voices.

That's why Half in Ten and the Coalition on Human Needs have collected videos and written testimony from individuals across the country that highlight the many ways federal programs help those who are struggling, while also building a more promising economic future for our nation as a whole. Today we launched our Road to Shared Prosperity story map, which already includes nearly one hundred stories like those of Terrence and Kayla.

Over and over again, these witnesses remind us of three important reasons to preserve human needs services:

• They help individuals and families during times of need, preventing untold hardship;
• They enable people to overcome temporary set-backs and become productive, contributing members of society; and
• They save money by creating taxpayers and reducing dependency on more intensive and costly services.

The stories we've collected illuminate how dangerous it is to try to resolve the budget deficit just by cutting programs that provide a leg up to those in need. Take the story of an Illinois grandmother who was able to live at home because the Community Services Block Grant paid for her walker, the Older Americans Act brought her nutritious meals through programs like Meals on Wheels, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helped heat her home. Without these supports, she would have spent the last three years of her life in a nursing home, at far more expense to taxpayers.

Cutting services that have consistently proven effective at helping low and moderate income people is a misguided strategy and should not be part of efforts by Congress and the Obama administration to reduce the federal deficit.

Fortunately, there are better ways to protect our country's economic future. A deficit reduction plan that relies on both spending cuts and revenues is a more equitable and fiscally appropriate approach to getting our country back on sound economic footing. Reducing spending across the entire budget, including the military and examining the tax code for special interest subsidies, would allow us to preserve essential services and prevent hardship. As it turns out, the most compassionate approach to cutting the deficit is also the most economically prudent.

Deborah Weinstein is the executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs; Melissa Boteach is manager of Half in Ten: the Campaign to Cut Poverty in Half in Ten years, at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.