Chopping block


On the Chopping Block: America's Commitment to Opportunity
March 16, 2017

Upward mobility is a cornerstone of the American Dream. And for decades now, the federal government has played a vital role in helping millions escape poverty. The effectiveness and degree of that commitment has varied from administration to administration, but the commitment itself has largely remained intact—until now.

President Donald Trump has clearly signaled he is not committed to upholding equal justice and opportunity for all. Today, the President released his first “skinny budget,” a blueprint intended to guide congressional lawmakers on federal spending priorities. While this budget is particularly skinny relative to those of past administrations, the details it does offer, if enacted, would spell disaster for people living in or near poverty. Specifically, it eliminates or cuts funding for various anti-poverty programs, including legal services; the Low-income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); housing support; food and nutrition assistance for seniors, mothers, and children; and job-training initiatives within the Department of Labor, among other key efforts.

The proposed elimination of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is a pivotal blow to access to justice. Originating in the War on Poverty roughly 50 years ago under the leadership of our founder, Sargent Shriver, LSC helps fund attorneys around the country who provide civil legal aid to people living in poverty. Not only does funding for legal services help ensure that millions have equal access to justice—but it has also been a vital tool in the trenches of the fight against poverty, helping individuals and families access benefits to which they’re entitled, stave off housing discrimination, and avoid various other forms of financial exploitation. Though the program has had to weather many attacks over the years, bipartisan support for legal services has never wavered. The vitality of LSC, in many ways, acts as a sort of barometer for our country’s commitment to supporting basic fairness and access to equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of one’s income. 

President Trump’s budget would produce suffering for millions. Millions of people in poverty would be locked out of access to legal justice. Many would lose essential supports that make work and upward mobility possible. Struggling individuals attempting to find work would be left to languish in unemployment. Others who cannot work would lose core elements of a basic quality of life. Expectant mothers, children, and homebound seniors would go hungry.  Families would quite literally be left out in the cold. And many of the very people who will suffer from these cuts would be those who feel the pain produced by the GOP’s health plan released earlier this week—a plan that would strip tens of millions of people of healthcare insurance. The Trump budget, if enacted, would ultimately send many free-falling into poverty, drive others deeper into its grips, and drastically weaken our country’s ladder of upward mobility. 

While jarring, the President’s budget is not surprising. It comes on the heels of a divisive and racially charged campaign, a deeply troubling transition, selection of cabinet members that threaten the crucial poverty-fighting functions of their agencies, and support for a health plan that attacks the care and services of those least able to afford it. If this blueprint is any indication of how the President intends to serve people in or near poverty, then we fear that the complete budget offered later in the spring will likely wreak even more havoc—taking aim at other anti-poverty programs.

Budgets are profoundly moral documents. While technical, opaque, and often numbingly detailed, they reflect the author’s priorities and values. President Trump himself has claimed he is dedicated to helping struggling families achieve financial stability. His budget says otherwise. The numbers don’t add up. The President has put our country’s commitment to equal justice and opportunity for all on the chopping block. It is up to advocates around the country to fight back. The financial and physical prospects of millions are at stake.

Trevor Brown contributed to this blog.