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Pain of ‘fiscal cliff’ averted, but bigger pain ahead for needy wasn’t

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Pain of ‘fiscal cliff’ averted, but bigger pain ahead for needy wasn’t

The last minute deal to avert the fiscal cliff brought fiscal relief, but that relief will be short lived.

A year ago, GOP congressional leaders made clear that if they have their way they will wield the axe on vital domestic programs. In March, they will get their chance.

This time, they have the cover and leverage of the debt ceiling battle, and they will be under even fiercer pressure from conservatives not to make any more concessions to President Obama and the Democrats on delaying spending cuts.

The cuts are brutal. The programs targeted for them include food grant aid, job training programs and health programs. The biggest hit will be on programs that directly serve needy children and their families. These programs and the funding for them have long been the most tenuous and vulnerable, even in the best of fiscal times. Many of them have flown quietly under the public radar for years, but no more. They will be back in the budget cut bullseye in March and they will spark yet another fierce fight — and they should.

The devil’s in the details of the proposed cuts, but those details have drawn almost no intense media or public scrutiny. The grim dollars and cents tally of programs to be cut or eliminated in the next budget debate is heartbreaking. More than $600 million could be axed from the Head Start program. For decades it has provided child care, education and nutrition programs for millions of low-income children.

In 2012, nearly a million children were enrolled in the program. Thousands more children were eligible for the program, but were left out because of past funding trims. The budget cuts would eliminate nearly 100,000 needy school-age children from the program. Head Start has been widely recognized as a program which has reduced costs for welfare, special education and the criminal justice system by providing children and their parents with crucial education and job training skills.

A companion program to Head Start is the program that allocates block grant funds to child care and development. This program is scheduled to lose nearly $200 million. The funds provide subsidies to low-income families to help defray the costs of child care. It has been a huge lifeline to thousands of low-income working parents and it has enabled them to work or to search for jobs.

In 2012 the program provided aid to 1.5 million children and their families. As in the case of Head Start, thousands of families that were eligible for the subsidy program received no funds because of the funding shortfall. The number of families and children in the program will plunge by thousands more with the proposed cuts.

A similar program funds block grants to the states for urgent child health care and treatment. It provides subsidies to clinics and schools to provide the health care. It will lose more than $40 million. The figure may seem relatively small. But the cost-effective program has provided care for health services and prevention for several million children. The estimate is that 5 million children would lose access to these programs with the funding cut.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will take a major hit to its HIV prevention and testing program. A huge slice of the funding for grants it provides to the states for surveillance, testing, behavioral programs, and other scientifically proven activities will be lopped off. More than half a million people would no longer have access to HIV testing, prevention and drug assistance programs with the proposed $40 million in cuts.

That’s only the start. The AIDS Drug Assistance program will also be slashed by $12 million. The program has literally been a life saver for thousands of persons affected by HIV who can’t afford treatment drugs or to pay for health insurance coverage to get access to medication and treatment. The program has not just saved the lives of those affected but has been key to stopping the spread of the disease to other potential victims.

These scheduled cuts are just the tip of the iceberg. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies sounded the loudest alarm on the scheduled cuts. It has listed dozens more programs that will be sharply reduced or are on the chopping block. They affect tens of millions of the poorest and neediest Americans.

If ever the “penny wise and pound foolish” line applied, it’s to these cuts. They would reduce the U.S. gross domestic product for the next decade by nearly $80 billion. The billions do not tell the human toll the cuts will take on the neediest and least protected. The pain of the fiscal cliff was averted, but the bigger pain for the needy that looms wasn’t.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.