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Tax Cuts (and Politics) Have Put the Safety Net at Risk. What Are You Going to Do About It?

May 30, 2018

Fish-safety-netThe demand for human services — everything from food for the hungry to family planning for those who may be struggling to take care of the children they already have — is growing. But if recent proposals floated by President Trump and congressional Republicans become policy, charities will be faced with dramatic increases in both the scale and scope of need, even as they struggle with cuts in funding to meet them.

It is urgent for nonprofits to join forces to persuade Congress to reject ideas that create greater need. Charities have to help re-establish the kind of bipartisan political agreement about safety-net programs that used to be the norm. And foundations must fuel such efforts.

In May, the U.S. House of Representatives failed to pass a Farm Bill with vital anti-hunger provisions after many of its most conservative members withheld their votes. By doing so, Freedom Caucus members hoped to get concessions on spending as well as a future vote on an anti-"Dreamers" immigration bill that the vast majority of their colleagues find too mean-spirited and extreme to consider.

Had the bill passed (as it most likely will in the coming weeks despite united Democratic opposition), it would have required that individuals enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) work at least twenty hours a week. Given the life circumstances of many SNAP participants, including some of the hardest-working people in America, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office calculates that the bill (in its current form) would deny more than a million adults and children much-needed food assistance.

Republicans base their insistence that SNAP recipients be required to work on research by the Foundation for Government Accountability, an obscure policy group headed by a former aide to Maine's ogre-ish governor, Paul LePage. FGA's work has been criticized by both conservative and liberal scholars as having no basis in credible fact, but in our current political climate it seems that many Republican lawmakers favor junk science and "alternative facts" over demonstrable reality (as they have demonstrated with notable intentionality in their opposition to action on climate change).

Desperate to cut government spending in the face of a deficit they ballooned with a $1.5 trillion tax cut, congressional Republicans and the White House are turning on those most in need — as was made clear by Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney, who wrote in a 2017 opinion piece: "Under President Trump's leadership, we're now looking at how we can respect both those who require assistance and the taxpayers who fund that support. For the first time in a long time, we're putting taxpayers first. Taking money from someone without an intention to pay it back is not debt. It is theft. This budget makes it clear that we will reverse this larceny." That's right: the Trump administration thinks government-funded social services for the poor are a form of theft.

The president is determined to continue down the same path in 2018 and has proposed cuts totaling more than $15 billion in previously approved spending, with half of that coming from the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and $100 million coming from Hurricane Sandy relief funds. Congressional Republicans fearful of what they may face in November’s midterm elections have temporarily rebuffed Trump, but the president has said he will propose an additional $10 billion in cuts to safety-net programs in the coming weeks.

The assault on human service programs goes beyond funding cuts, however. Trump, with strong support from Republican politicians, just revived a modified "gag-rule" for nonprofit family planning organizations and programs. (He had already banned international family planning groups from receiving federal government funds if they even mentioned the word abortion to their clients.)

Under the rule, any organization or program that is even partially funded by the federal government can no longer refer clients for abortion services, and their other family planning services cannot be located in a facility in which abortion services are offered or financing is shared.

The administration's action means that significant new costs will be imposed on family planning groups, many of which will be unable to absorb them. With the need for duplication of physical, administrative, and program facilities — not to mention all the computers, printers, copiers, and other equipment necessary to a well-functioning operation — the administration's policy will hamper and in some cases bankrupt family planning groups. And that, in the long run, will increase both the demand for abortions and the number of unwanted children.

The proposed rule is likely to most affect the kinds of front-line health providers that serve disadvantaged members of society. Roughly two-thirds of the individuals who use family planning services fall below the federal poverty level, and nonprofit organizations that serve them will be hard-pressed to meet the demand for their services as the number of providers continues to shrink. And even if a nonprofit can finance two separate facilities and pay two separate staffs required, practitioners in one facility will not be able to refer patients to their colleagues in the other facility, even if next door.

Indeed, if the Republicans hold on to their congressional majorities in the midterm elections, things will get worse for those in need as well as the charities that serve them. The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress already are talking about going after Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement programs, despite the outrageous claim that the deficit they created with tax cuts for the wealthy are the reason they need to slash entitlements and safety-net programs for the rest of us.

Nonprofit organizations, especially those engaged in human services, cannot stand by while these regressive policies are proposed and advanced. They need to do everything they can to inform and activate the electorate so that Americans realize what is at stake, understand who truly represents their interests, and turn out to vote in the midterm elections.

Too much is on the line for organizations to mind their own business and narrowly focus on fundraising instead of advocacy and action. Organizations like Nonprofit Vote can help charities and foundations understand the rules about what they are allowed to do — and suggest tactics that make a difference. We're all in this together, and the time to act is now.

Headshot_mark_rosenmanMark Rosenman is a professor emeritus at the Union Institute & University. To read more of Rosenman's commentary, click here.

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