Help For Poor Could Be Sacrificed To Boost Economy As Congress debates what to do about spending and extending tax cuts this fall, advocates for low-income Americans worry that several programs and tax breaks to help the poor will lose out.
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Help For Poor Could Be Sacrificed To Boost Economy

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Help For Poor Could Be Sacrificed To Boost Economy

Help For Poor Could Be Sacrificed To Boost Economy

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When Congress returns from vacation next week, there will be lots of talk about stimulating the economy and extending tax breaks, including those for the richest Americans. What will likely get a lot less attention are programs to help low-income Americans that are also set to expire this fall.

That worries advocates for the poor, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: The first big warning sign came last month when Congress decided to pay for part of a $26 billion jobs bill by cutting future food stamp benefits. Anti-hunger advocates and their House allies were upset to find themselves with an uncomfortable choice: support either hungry families or unemployed teachers.

Representative JIM MCGOVERN (Democrat, Massachusetts): Quite frankly, Im outraged that this is one of the offsets.

FESSLER: Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern said he'd back the jobs bill, but only reluctantly. And he vowed to try to restore the food stamp cuts.

Rep. MCGOVERN: This practice of robbing Peter to pay Paul must come to an end.

FESSLER: But if anything, such tradeoffs are likely to grow, as lawmakers face a tough election season with increased concern about the federal debt and intense Republican pressure to limit spending.

Right after Congress cut food stamp benefits to help pay for the jobs bill, the Senate approved more food stamp cuts to pay for a child nutrition bill. The House has to decide soon if it wants to go along or find another way to pay for expanding the school lunch program.

Joy Moses is with the left-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington.

Ms. JOY MOSES (Center for American Progress): There is a definite feeling, given the deficit, that we need to pay for any new legislation and any new expansions of services, and Congress is on a hunt.

FESSLER: And she and other anti-poverty advocates are nervous about the potential targets. They're especially worried about the fate of an emergency fund created in last years stimulus bill to help employ low-income individuals.

States love the aid, part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and they've used it to subsidize a quarter of a million jobs so far. But the moneys set to stop flowing at the end of this month.

Mr. STAN McMORRIS (Deputy Executive Director, Mississippi Department of Employment Security): Not being able to extend the program is not a good thing.

FESSLER: Stan McMorris is deputy executive director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security. His state is working with private companies to employ about 2,600 people right now who might otherwise be collecting unemployment or other government aid.

Mr. McMORRIS: In the scheme of things, 2,000 jobs in Mississippi is a major, major impact.

FESSLER: But McMorris has already notified companies that no more participants will be signed up. He says those currently employed could be out of work soon. The idea had been to get them permanent jobs.

The House has voted to extend the program another year, at a cost of $2.5 billion, but the proposal stalled in the Senate.

Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, says she's also worried about other programs for the poor.

Ms. DEBORAH WEINSTEIN (Executive Director, Coalition on Human Needs): One example is the child tax credit.

FESSLER: Which Congress expanded last year so that a minimum-wage worker with two children would get about $1,700 a year. That amount will drop to less than $300 unless Congress extends the change past December 31st.

Ms. WEINSTEIN: That would be a huge blow for a struggling working family at a time when, of course, its so especially hard to make ends meet.

FESSLER: And times could be even tougher if Congress doesn't continue extended unemployment benefits, which expire at the end of November.

All these issues are certain to be affected by an increasingly partisan debate over how to handle the economy. Right after Congressman McGovern bemoaned the choice between spending more for jobs or food stamps, Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling got up on the House floor to complain about the Democrats plans for growth.

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): I dont know if this is stimulus bill part three or bailout bill part four. Theres been so many of them, its simply hard to keep track of.

FESSLER: Republicans, and a growing number of Democrats, think that tax cuts, even for the wealthiest taxpayers, are the answer. That will inevitably pit the poor against some powerful interests as Congress struggles to balance competing demands.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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