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Book of Matthew: Cold budgeting

Published: February 11, 2011
Section: Opinions


In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama spoke about the importance of cutting the yearly budget deficit.

“But,” he added, “let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

This line was met by particularly thunderous applause in the House chamber. Yet, only a month later, it seems that the message of the speech has faded from the president’s memory.

Recently, it has been reported that Obama’s proposed 2012 budget will cut $2.5 billion from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The 30-year-old program, which helps low-income families pay their home energy bills, especially for heating, will be forced to operate with about half of the $5.1 billion budget it had last year.

This is not another example of “wasteful spending” due for the chopping block. LIHEAP is already underfunded. The number of Americans who received LIHEAP grants last year increased during the previous year, due in part to the lingering effects of the recession and rising energy prices—especially $90-per-barrel oil. And this year, as we all know, Americans in the Northeast are suffering through a particularly bad winter—a fact that prompted Senator John Kerry (D-MA) to write the president and beg him to keep LIHEAP funding at its 2010 level.

“We simply cannot afford to cut LIHEAP funding during one of the most brutal winters in history,” Kerry wrote in his Feb. 9 letter. “Families across Massachusetts, and the country, depend on these monies to heat their homes and survive the season.”

If this cut is implemented, Kerry’s fears, and the fears of state LIHEAP directors across the nation, will come true: three million qualifying Americans will go without energy assistance, according to the American Gas Association.

But the worst thing about this cut is what it means for the budget deficit: almost nothing. The budget deficit for fiscal year 2011 is projected to be about $1.5 trillion. Cutting $2.5 billion in LIHEAP funding will reduce that shortfall to—drum roll—$1.4975 trillion.

Not exactly enough to turn us into a thrifty nation.

This is part of a disturbing trend that the White House has been setting recently. Though Obama has rightly promised to reduce the deficit in the near future, he seems oddly focused on some of the smallest items in the budget, like community service block grants, which states give to community organizers to help the poor. Obama himself worked with these grants when he was a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s, and he has called the decision to cut their funding in half, saving $350 million, a difficult one.

But cutting small grants won’t make any more of a dent in the deficit than will cutting from LIHEAP—after all, you can’t lose weight by ordering a Big Mac, large fries, and a Diet Coke. They will, however, make life more difficult for the individuals who rely on the government funding.

I expect this sort of behavior from Republicans, who have made no effort to hide their disdain for the poorest Americans, and who, if current legislative events are to be any indication, would rather persecute women seeking abortions than do anything to fix our economic troubles. I do not expect this from a man who spent his younger years working with those same poor Americans and teaching them how to better themselves through political action.

Truly cutting the budget deficit will be difficult, and it will require major changes to the amount our government collects in taxes and the amount of money it spends on the military (sorry Republicans—two of the largest contributors to the deficit are the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Until that happens, snipping tiny line items from the bottom of the budget amounts to nothing more than political showmanship.

Americans are willing to sacrifice, if necessary. We’ve done it before—several times in our nation’s history. But only if we know that our sacrifice will mean something.