The toughest test in journalism is to convey the scale of an event. Some things are easily quantified. We can write of a plane crash that took 38 lives or of a tornado that wiped out a trailer park.
But when it comes to massive social changes, like the rise in out-of-wedlock births, the numbers quickly lose their shock capacity.
That is why it is such a struggle to convey the scale of the changes the Republican Congress is making in programs targeted to the most hard-pressed and heavily burdened Americans.
The Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage supplement for the working poor, is one example. The EITC has enjoyed bipartisan support for 20 years, as a way of encouraging people to leave welfare for entry-level jobs and helping keep their families out of poverty while they work their way up. But it is jeopardized in the name of reducing the deficit.
The hard thing is to convey the overall picture of what is happening to all of the “means-tested” programs, those which deliver services or commodities or cash assistance to people who meet the relevant criteria of need.
The conclusion is inescapable: Contrary to what we would like to believe - the vital effort to get the budget back in balance is not an even-handed, share-and-share-alike endeavor, but one that hits hardest on the most economically vulnerable and politically defenseless people in our society - poor women and children.
How big are the cuts? Measured in constant dollars, the Republican budget’s cuts in low-income programs such as Medicaid, welfare and food stamps are seven times the size of those passed in Ronald Reagan’s first Congress.
How do these cuts compare to those imposed on other constituencies? The means-tested entitlements we have been talking about make up 25 percent of all entitlements. They are dwarfed by Social Security and Medicare, for which everyone past 65 is eligible regardless of income. But these low-income programs take 45 percent of the entitlement reductions in the Republican budget - almost twice their proportional share.
The annual appropriations bills that finance other government spending are still being negotiated, but a sign of what is to come can be found in the rescission bill, canceling the use of previously appropriated funds, which was sent to President Clinton two months ago. Programs for low-income people provided 62 percent of the $13 billion savings, even though such programs account for only 12 percent of the government’s nonentitlement spending.
In simplest terms: Low-income programs lose 13 percent of their funds. All other annually financed programs, only 1 percent of theirs.
Here are some examples:
The summer jobs program for 600,000 low-income youngsters between 14 and 21 - eliminated.
Five Housing and Urban Development Department programs that provide temporary shelter and social services for some 600,000 homeless people - slashed by 40 percent.
The main federal education program for disadvantaged elementary school students - reduced by one-sixth, or over $1 billion.
The Legal Services Corporation, which provides lawyers for low-income people in civil cases such as disputes with landlords - cut by almost one-third and proposed for elimination.
In many areas, including welfare, Congress is bent on shifting responsibility from Washington to the states. An indication of what this will mean comes from a newly released study from the Institute for Educational Leadership. Speaking of the basic welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which currently is financed jointly by Washington and the states, the report found that between 1980 and 1992, adjusting for inflation, “real state spending on AFDC per poor family declined by 31 percent.”
The lesson: Losses in low-income programs in Washington are likely to be compounded, not offset, by the states.