Why We Should Put Children and Families First During Fiscal Cliff Negotiations

FILE - This Nov. 16, 2012 file photo shows President Barack Obama, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, speakin
FILE - This Nov. 16, 2012 file photo shows President Barack Obama, accompanied by House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, speaking to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, as he hosted a meeting of the bipartisan, bicameral leadership of Congress to discuss the deficit and economy in Washington. Americans are living longer, and Republicans are proposing to raise the Medicare eligibility age as part of a deal to reduce the government's huge deficits. But what sounds like a common-sense sacrifice for an aging society that's facing tight budgets could have some surprising consequences, including higher premiums for people on Medicare. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

In November, Massachusetts voters delivered a strong message to Washington on the importance of maintaining vital social service programs with the "Budget for All" ballot question passing by a three to one margin. Ninety-one cities and towns across the state supported the referendum, initiated by over eighty groups including community, peace, labor and faith organizations. Support for this ballot question came at a critical time with the looming federal "fiscal cliff" in discussion. Budget cuts covering a range of programs and initiatives from: Social Security; Medicare; investments in useful jobs; ending corporate tax loopholes and the Bush tax cuts on high incomes; redirection of military spending to domestic needs; job creation; and withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan threaten to upend our U.S. economy sending the country back into downturn.

Other states also faced ballot questions that would impact education and health care on a state level. Californians voted to avert deep school cuts and to provide billions in new education funding by passing tax increases on earnings over $250,000 through Proposition 38. Additionally, five states allowed voters the opportunity to show their disapproval of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act with acts to limit health care reform; these largely symbolic ballot measures were approved in four states.

Without a compromise from Congress on spending cuts and tax increases, there will be an immediate impact on much-needed programs through slashes in the "discretionary spending" budget. Beginning in January, sequestration cuts will be automatically implemented, with billions a year in "discretionary spending" reductions lasting from 2013 to 2022. Defense will also be cut by an equal margin. Likely exempt from sequestration are mandatory programs for low-income people, such as Medicaid and SNAP/Food Stamps and Social Security benefits. However, discretionary programs such as Head Start, child care, and women's health services could be drastically diminished.

The unintended consequences of these sweeping cuts will be apparent in the near future as states are forced to dismantle the safety nets created to support the neediest residents. An already fragile education system that remains in grave need of reform, particularly in large urban areas, will deteriorate further, thereby making the recent investments via Race to the Top and The Stimulus package obsolete.

The impact of these cuts on higher education will be felt on students and families throughout the country; without federal financial aid many students will not be able to afford to attend college. The Pell Grant program may be subject to sequestration starting in FY2014. More than 8 million Americans a year currently depend on Pell Grant scholarships to help afford college. Virtually all other federally funded financial aid programs could see budget cuts of more than 8 percent in 2013. The Office of Federal Student Aid will lose $140 million in funding, likely resulting in a reduction in the number of students who benefit from programs such as Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Federal Work Study, LEAP, TEACH Grants and the Perkins Loan.

While Washington remains in negotiations, with Republicans insisting on spending cuts and Democrats advocating for income tax increases on the wealthiest 2 percent of taxpayers, I urge the higher education community and policy makers to consider the impact of these budget cuts on those who most benefit from the programs on the chopping block -- there will be a real impact on the lives of women and children.

Reductions are expected to disproportionally affect the most under-served populations. Discretionary spending programs serving children, youth, and families -- including early childhood education, housing, child health, child welfare, and nutrition -- stand to lose an estimated $6.4 billion in 2013 alone. This is of significant concern as it would put the non-defense discretionary spending level at the lowest share of the GDP on record.

The continued rise in poverty for women and children in the country indicates that the official end of the recession did not represent recovery for millions of women and their families. In fact, poverty for women and children remains near historically high levels despite signs of stabilization in the rate in 2011. We have yet to reverse the downward poverty rate trend for women and children since it reached a 17-year high in 2010. In 2011, the child poverty rate was 21.9, compared to 22.0 percent in 2010. More than half (58 percent) of poor children lived in female-headed families in 2011. Reductions in social programs for the next nine years would likely thrust vulnerable women and children back below the poverty line. Now is the time to advocate for the government to prioritize women and children and break the historical trend of cutting funding for these groups during tough fiscal times.

At the federal level, I advise against significant reductions to the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) as it would disproportionately hurt women and their children by increasing the inequality gap. U.S. Census data from the 2011 Supplemental Poverty Measure indicates that 8.7 million people were lifted out of out of poverty in 2011 due to the refundable tax credits; without them, the child poverty rate would have been raised by 6.3 percent.

Sequestration cuts will be devastating -- not just today but in the future. Some of these effects include:

  • Services will be cut or eliminated for more than 9 million students, including 1.8 million students living in poverty and receiving Title 1 services.

  • Nearly 80,000 education jobs will be lost at early childhood, elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels.
  • 69,000 students in our neediest schools will suffer with cuts to School Improvement Grants.
  • 75,000 fewer children will receive Head Start services.
  • 25,000 child care slots that currently enable parents to work while children are in a safe environment will be lost.
  • 734,000 households will no longer get help paying their utility bills through the low-income home energy assistance program.
  • In order to preserve critical programs and services, the Obama Administration and Congress must put the partisanship aside and act to "first do no harm to children." If children and vulnerable populations are kept at the center of arguments, the conversation on cuts will change in tone.

    This past election, American voters charged President Obama and Congress to find solutions. Now is the time for us to unite to speak up on behalf children, youth and their families. Instead of sequestration, we must demand that policy makers develop a well-balanced plan, making critical decisions on revenue and spending that put children first!