In an effort to drum up support for further budget cuts, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) released a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report recently on the state of "means-tested" spending, a category that he chooses to label broadly as "welfare." Some of these programs provide funding to states to support services such as foster care for children who are neglected or abused. Others offer money to cities to build housing. Some help pay for child care so that parents can go to work knowing that their children are safe, while others help students go to college or get job training in order to obtain better jobs and escape poverty. Still others are provided through the tax system and offer incentives that ensure higher earnings for working, low-income parents. According to the Senator, anything that is means-tested (except for veterans' benefits) is welfare. Head Start? Welfare. Pell Grants? Welfare. Adoption Assistance? Welfare. School lunch? You get the idea.
Eliminating or significantly paring down these programs will, according to the Senator, promote, "gainful employment and financial independence." While no one could argue with these goals, the truth is that cutting these programs will do just the opposite. Pell Grants, for example, make college possible for more than 9 million Americans; research shows that such need-based grant aid increases college enrollment among low- and moderate-income students and reduces their likelihood of dropping out of college.
According to researchers Nada Eissa, a former Bush Treasury appointee, and Hilary Hoynes, the Earned-Income Tax Credit (EITC), another program highlighted in the CRS study, has been "enormously successful at encouraging labor-market participation by single parents." Other research has shown that increasing family income by $3,000 - about the amount an average family might receive from the EITC -- is associated with significant increases in the children's later earnings as well as hours worked per year. Research also shows that child care assistance makes a significant difference in the economic health and security of families. It helps families sustain their participation in the workforce -- by reducing instability in care arrangements that can impact work -- and move out of poverty.
If Senator Sessions truly cares about promoting work and opportunity, he should work to preserve these programs. These programs don't inhibit opportunity, they multiply it. They put families on the path to the middle class and the American Dream.
Senator Session's agenda is also flawed from a spending perspective. The CRS report he cites in fact shows that except for a few programs -- such as Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps) and the EITC, where spending responds automatically to need -- spending on programs for low-income people has already leveled off, and has begun to decline. And more cuts have already been enacted -- the 112th Congress has already reduced domestic discretionary spending by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. Moreover, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently noted, spending on low-income entitlement programs other than health care is expected to fall below its 40-year average as the economy continues to improve.
In January, numerous government programs potentially face further cuts. Because Congress has failed to develop a balanced approach to deficit reduction, unless it comes to agreement after the election, a range of programs from elementary education and environmental protection to programs that support the most vulnerable Americans will all be cut, without regard for their importance or effectiveness. Neither this "kitchen sink" approach to resolving our budget woes, nor Senator Sessions' attempts to characterize successful programs as "welfare," will improve the economic standing of most Americans. Rather, they seek to eliminate public investment in programs that expand opportunity for individuals and help advance the economic competitiveness of our nation as a whole.