While political pundits reminisce about the month-long government shutdown of 1995-96 as the current budget battle takes place, I can only think of a political cartoon from that time. In December 1995, my local paper ran a political cartoon depicting two homeless men huddled together in front of a fire on a blustery winter day. In that cartoon, a member of Congress walks by and proclaims, “What a relief! For a minute I thought you were burning a flag!” That more than 15-year-old symbol of Congressional disconnect from the real-life challenges facing low-income people still rings true today. As our national poverty rate among children is set to hit a record 25%, the U.S. House of Representatives proposes to cut $61 billion from the FY 2011 budget, representing the largest cut to domestic spending programs in U.S. history.
Among hundreds of programs that help low-income households, H.R. 1 proposes deep cuts to housing programs that prevent homelessness and provide stability to low-income households. H.R. 1 proposes to cut $5.4 billion from domestic housing programs, which could mean fewer available rental vouchers (which help families rent housing in the private market), the loss of 10,000 vouchers for homeless veterans, almost a 70% cut to programs providing affordable housing for the elderly and disabled, a $1.1 billion cut to capital money needed to repair and maintain public housing, and the loss of HOME dollars, which enable local governments to meet local affordable housing needs.
These deep cuts to critical housing programs come at the same time the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a report, finding that “worst case housing needs” grew by 1.2 million households, or more than 20%, from 2007 to 2009. “Worst case housing needs” are defined as low-income households who pay more than half their monthly income for rent, live in severely substandard housing, or both.
To avoid a government shutdown, the House and Senate must figure out how to fund the remainder of FY 2011 by March 18, 2011. Given the hard lines being taken in this budget battle, more proposed cuts are expected to domestic spending programs, including housing. Campaign rhetoric cannot ignore everyday people and children, who rely upon this Congress and President to protect them from deep poverty and homelessness. In the end, domestic spending cuts that eliminate critical housing programs will not save us money—they will cost us money. Research has shown that homelessness costs us more than paying for programs that prevent/address it. Indeed, a recently published study found that the cost of family homeless programs far is nearly double the cost of the nation’s rental assistance programs. These housing programs deliver real assistance on a daily basis so that seniors, families, and persons with disabilities do not have to choose between medicine, food, and housing. Wake up Congress, put aside this political blustering, and provide the necessary support for our nation’s low-income housing programs.