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Budgets are moral documents, and Trump’s is a moral failure

Government Assistance Programs Aid Underprivileged Communities In New York State
Meals on Wheels beneficiary Joseph Horecky.
John Moore/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The budget is a moral document.

It’s not clear where that phrase originates, but it’s become a staple of fiscal policy debates in DC, and for very good reason. Budgets lay out how a fifth of the national economy is going to be allocated. They make trade-offs between cancer treatment and jet fighters, scientific research and tax cuts, national parks and border fences. These are all decisions with profound moral implications. Budgets, when implemented, can lift millions out of poverty, or consign millions more to it. They can provide universal health insurance or take coverage away from those who have it. They can fuel wars or support peacekeeping.

What President Donald Trump released on Thursday is not a full budget. It doesn’t touch on taxes, or on entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or food stamps. It concerns itself exclusively with the third of the budget that’s allocated through the annual appropriations process.

But it’s a moral document nonetheless. And the moral consequences of its implementation would be profound, and negative. The fact that it will not be implemented in full — that Congress is almost certain not to go along with many of its recommendations — in no way detracts from what it tells us about the administration’s priorities, and its ethics.

Let’s start with poverty. By excluding entitlements, the budget outline is silent on most of the federal government’s efforts to reduce poverty in America. That makes it all the more remarkable that it still managed to find plenty of programs aimed at helping low-income Americans to cut or eliminate. In a Twitter thread, Center for American Progress poverty researcher Rebecca Vallas highlighted more than a dozen examples:

The Community Services Block Grant, which funds local antipoverty efforts, is eliminated, along with the Community Development Block Grant, which helps fund Meals on Wheels. So is the Appalachian Regional Commission, lest you think Trump is showing any mercy for the Rust Belt voters that helped him win Ohio and Pennsylvania. The Department of Housing and Urban Development sees several affordable housing programs eliminated, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness is gone, and the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees AmeriCorps, is defunded. As Vallas says, nutritional assistance for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) gets a $200 million cut.

With the possible exceptions of Meals on Wheels and AmeriCorps, these programs are fairly obscure. I can’t remember the last mass protest on behalf of WIC. They’re also the only programs for the poor to be slashed under the sequestration imposed in February 2013, which has been limiting discretionary spending ever since. Mandatory programs were spared, but the likes of WIC and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) were not.

But they’re important. WIC helps ensure that newborns in poor families aren’t malnourished. LIHEAP keeps poor families warm in the winter. The Legal Services Corporation ensures that at least some poor people screwed over by their landlords or employers have legal recourse.

A significant reason why these programs have survived over the years is that it doesn’t really make sense to gut them. They’re relatively cheap, with the most expensive, WIC, costing only $6.4 billion last year. That might seem like a lot, but in the context of the nearly $4 trillion a year federal budget it’s a pittance, about 0.16 percent. You’re just not going to make much of any progress toward reducing the deficit by cutting them.

But if you want to hold the deficit harmless while funding a significant increase in Defense and Homeland Security funding, you have to find that money somewhere. And Trump’s team decided to find it in these small but important programs for the poor.

The budget undoes America’s commitment to climate change

Strongest Storm In Six Years Slams Southern California
Flooding in Sun Valley, California, streets.
David McNew/Getty Images

The EPA is always a target for cuts when Republicans control Congress. But all the same, the obsessive efforts this budget makes to roll back any and all spending on climate change are remarkable. My colleague Brad Plumer has a full rundown, but in brief: There's no money to enforce the Clean Power Plan. There's no EPA funding for climate research. The Energy Department's clean energy R&D programs would be eliminated or scaled back. The State Department would have its climate programs cut. NASA and NOAA would see climate-related research money cut.

These cuts might be less significant to the future course of climate change than Trump’s efforts to roll back the Clean Power Plan itself. But they nonetheless are a strong signal that the Trump administration just doesn’t care about the climate at all. And that’s terrifying.

The idea that preventing catastrophic climate change is a moral imperative should be fairly straightforward. Surpassing 2ºC of warming, as now appears inevitable, will lead to even greater sea level rises. It could render some low-lying areas uninhabitable or force them to build hugely expensive sea walls, decimate food production, and increase the frequency of extreme and damaging weather events like droughts and heat waves. And those are just our best projections. The actual consequences, given how much uncertainty there is about knock-on effects to warming, could be substantially worse.

The distribution of this pain will not be even. The countries most vulnerable to climate change are disproportionately poor ones like India, Mozambique, Bangladesh, and Cambodia. World Bank president Jim Kim has stated that the effect of climate change could roll back "decades of development gains and force tens of more millions of people to live in poverty." And because of these countries' relative poverty, adaptation by relocating people, or building sea walls, or building weather-resistant homes, is far more difficult than it is in, say, the Netherlands.

Vox’s Dave Roberts has argued that Trump’s election ended whatever hope there was of avoiding 2ºC of warming, after decades of climate negotiations centered around that threshold. The budget suggests that Roberts was right. The world’s poor — and the environment as a whole — will pay the price.

The budget slashes foreign aid

USAID food aid
US Agency for International Development (USAID) Deputy Administrator Donald K. Steinberg, left, reviews US food aid in Djibouti, on July 8, 2011.
US Department of State

The budget is not terribly detailed about its cuts to the US Agency for International Development (USAID). But it’s hard to imagine its 28 percent cut to the State Department not substantially harming US efforts at humanitarian aid abroad.

It is explicit on certain points. The Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance fund, which is meant to help in refugee crises like the one facing Syria right now (and not just by having the US take refugees, either), is eliminated. Funding for the World Bank and other development banks is cut by $650 million over three years. Contributions to UN peacekeeping, which is a proven method of reducing conflict, are dialed back.

But in other parts it is vague. The budget claims to "refocus economic and development assistance to countries of greatest strategic importance to the US." That seems like a clear indication that USAID funds will be skewed more than they already are toward countries the US likes geopolitically, rather than ones that have the most humanitarian need.

The budget isn't quite as bad as it could be. It pledges to maintain current commitments on the HIV/AIDS program PEPFAR, the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and Gavi vaccine alliance. That doesn’t make up for Trump’s cuts made by placing a “gag rule” banning the distribution of information on abortion on all groups receiving global health funding, but it’s a relief given some prior indications that Trump would cut PEPFAR.

That said, to celebrate those programs’ safety would be to lower standards so that Trump can meet them. This budget blueprint still promises a radical slashing of the State Department budget, which is not something one can do without seriously harming the global poor.

This is only the beginning

Speaker Paul Ryan And House Leadership Hold News Conference  On Capitol Hill Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It is a testament to the perverse fiscal priorities of this administration and Republicans in Congress that this is only the second most damaging anti-poor document they’ve put out in the past month. The absolute worst is the American Health Care Act, House Republicans’ Obamacare repeal proposal which would cut Medicaid by $880 billion over 10 years to fund a tax cut for the rich.

In May, when Trump’s team promises to release their full budget, expect to see more of the same. The full budget will tackle entitlements and taxes. Social Security and Medicare won’t be cut, per Trump’s repeated promises. That does some good for the elderly poor.

But Trump already broke his promise to hold Medicaid harmless in the health care bill, a cut that could see itself included in the May budget, and which will do particular damage to poor seniors reliant on the program.

The cuts could go beyond health programs to encompass food stamps, or Supplemental Security Income. Trump could embrace House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plans to block-grant basically all federal safety net spending, including food stamps, cutting the programs while letting states impose restrictions like work requirements and drug testing that don’t improve the programs’ function but do deter people from signing up.

There is much more harm to be done to the American poor in the mandatory budget than the discretionary one. And if this budget outline is any indication, the Trump administration is very interested in inflicting that kind of harm.

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