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"Being Poor is a State of Mind"

The Frowning Face of Compassionate Conservatism

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

Compassionate conservatism has many faces and most of them have frowns. They frown at everything from the environment to the poor.

During the 2000 campaign Mr. Bush proclaimed the environment one of his very best friends. He promised to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the main federal land-acquisition program, to the statutory maximum of $900 million a year. Once elected Mr. Bush had lots of other things on what passes for his mind, and instead of asking for $900 million a year he asked for only $300 million leaving him $3.3 billion short of his promised goal.

As a candidate Mr. Bush promised that within five years he would eliminate the $5 billion maintenance backlog that confronted the Park Service. Today the cost of deferred maintenance is estimated to be between $4.1 billion and $6.8 billion. That leaves Mr. Bush with only slightly more of a backlog or slightly less of a backlog than when he took office. That is not to suggest that Mr. Bush has ignored the National Park Service. Instead of eliminating the backlog he has asked the National Park Service to create an inventory of the condition of roads, buildings etc. in the system. Once that inventory has been completed it will be possible for everyone to see what state his broken promises have left us in.

During each of the last three years Mr. Bush has said he wants to end the programs that provide health insurance coverage for people who cannot afford such insurance. In 2004 Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services announced that the department was awarding $11.7 million in grants to help 30 states set up programs to provide coverage to those people. If Mr. Bush is reelected, he’ll have a chance to eliminate the program in future years. That’s not the only program he may be able to eliminate.

In a May 19 memorandum pertaining to planning for the future, the White House Office of Management and Budget told departments FY 2006 budget proposals should use administration formulae that will result in significant cut backs on many domestic programs. Those cutbacks will permit increased spending for defense and homeland security. The Washington Post suggests that the Department of Education will have to reduce its budget by $1.5 billion to accommodate the new formula. Veterans’ programs will be cut by $900 million.

The budget for fiscal year 2005 reduces federal spending on low income housing assistance by $1.66 billion and cuts back the number of families entitled to that assistance by 250,000. Under an agreement reach in 1998, 75% of housing vouchers were to go to families with incomes less than 30% of the area median income. Under the new program individuals with up to 80% of the median income would be eligible to participate. Families with higher incomes need lower subsidies and thus the program will serve more people. On the other hand, it will reduce the number of truly poor families that will receive the subsidies. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson does not think affordable housing is a big problem.

In a speech at the National Press Club lunch on June 17, Mr. Jackson said that in the United States "Rental housing is affordable and plentiful." In making that statement he’d not read the State of the Nation’s Housing report issued one week earlier by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. It found that nearly one-third of all households spend 30% or more of their incomes on housing and 13% spend 50% or more. Almost two million households live in units described as severely inadequate. HUD"s own Worst Case Housing Needs says 5.07 million families have worst case housing needs meaning they are very low income, face severe cost or quality problems in their homes and don’t receive housing assistance. It says that "worsening shortages of housing affordable and available to extremely-low-income renters. . . . show the underlying gap between demand and supply continues."

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, on a national basis, only 43 rental housing units are affordable and available for every 100 extremely low income families who need them. Even if those statistics had been seen by Mr. Jackson, they’d not have troubled him. As he explained in his first appearance before the House Financial Services Committee as Secretary: "being poor is a state of mind." That said, it’s really hard to get terribly upset about the fact that those with a bad state of mind don’t have nice places to live. They don’t need new housing-they need attitude adjustments. Thanks to the Bush administration, that’s all they’re likely to get.

Brauchli56@post. Harvard.edu.