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Remember the Poor

Monday, February 7, 2005; Page A20

BETWEEN 2000 and 2003, the number of people living in poverty rose 14 percent. In 2003, the most recent year for which numbers are available, one out of every eight Americans was poor, a disproportionate number of them children. The number without health insurance was the highest on record; more Americans went hungry. The poorest fell further below the poverty line while the richest took home a greater share of national income than ever.

We recite these depressing numbers today, as President Bush prepares to unveil his fiscal 2006 budget, because budgets are not only dry, fact-choked documents but a measure of the national character. These are the budgetary times that try the nation's soul: tax cuts that have drained the available revenue; a deficit that demands austerity; a war on terrorism, at home and abroad, that requires resources to keep the country safe. In the face of this unhappy fiscal reality, the risk is that the budget ax will fall most heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, those with the greatest need for government help but the smallest voice in the corridors of power.

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This is not an idle worry. Tax increases -- more accurately, undoing the reckless tax cuts that account for a good portion of the current constraints -- are, unfortunately, off the political table. What scant room there is for increased spending is to be consumed largely by defense and homeland security costs: Mr. Bush's new budget will seek $419 billion in defense spending, up 4.8 percent, and this amount does not include funding for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As much as we think the president's pledge to cut the deficit in half in five years is a sham -- an inadequate target achieved by misleading budgeting -- the cuts will have to come from somewhere if he is to even pretend to achieve that goal.

Reports that Mr. Bush will propose cuts in agricultural subsidies are terrific news, but any attempt at rollback is guaranteed to meet fierce resistance on Capitol Hill. It's fine that he wants to slash other wasteful spending, but last year's record on this front (the president targeted 65 programs for a savings of $5 billion; he ended up with five gone and a paltry $292 million savings) isn't inspiring.

All this leaves programs for poor Americans -- housing vouchers, home heating aid and food stamps, among others -- potentially exposed to troubling cuts. Medicaid, whose costs have been growing sharply along with health care costs in general, is slated for a cut of at least $44 billion over 10 years, shifting more costs to states and risking leaving more Americans with no insurance or inadequate coverage.

No program is sacrosanct, and no waste should be tolerated in any program. But a key test for lawmakers as the budget-writing process proceeds will be how the neediest are treated -- not whether they are lavished with government assistance but whether they endure a cruelly disproportionate share of the cuts that are to come.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company