The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

April foolery

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Cutting the tiny fraction of the federal budget dedicated to life-saving international health programs, emergency aid, poverty reduction, and economic development assistance wouldn’t do much for the federal budget deficit. But, that doesn’t stop politicians from making the foolish decision to cut it.

April fool’s day could go on for a month. Maybe longer.

The foolishness I’m talking about is the federal budget debate. The current drama gripping Washington is whether the factions in Congress will shut down the federal government to spite each other, by failing to enact a stop-gap spending measure while they negotiate a longer-term budget deal. It’s a game of chicken, each side counting on the other to blink and give in.

Beneath these theatrics are serious questions about whether—and how—to cut government spending. These questions will be answered later in April and in coming months as Congress takes up next year’s budget and raises the government’s debt limit. Republicans in Congress generally want to cut spending. Democrats in Congress, generally, want to cut spending, but less.

The enthusiasm for cutting government spending and closing the annual budget deficit seems a bit unreal since Congress and President Obama agreed to extend large tax cuts just four months ago that made the hole in the budget much bigger.

While all of this is going on, we are waiting to see what will happen to the tiny fraction of the federal budget that is dedicated to the life-saving international health programs, emergency aid, poverty reduction, and economic development assistance. (Side note: Oxfam doesn’t have an institutional interest in the outcome; we don’t accept US government funding.)

Cutting international assistance is a cheap talking point for politicians: “We have to take care of America before we send American money all over the world.”

In saying this, politicians perpetuate misperceptions about international assistance. And they should know better. According to recent polling, Americans think 27 percent of the budget is foreign aid. Thinking this, they want to cut it, dramatically, in half to about 13 percent. (The Washington Post Fact Checker provides polling detail here.)

The only problem is that less than 1 percent of the budget is foreign aid.

So cutting it in half—or even cutting all of it—wouldn’t do much for the federal budget deficit. But, that doesn’t stop politicians from making the foolish decision to cut it. Pretending to close the yawning federal budget gap with cuts to foreign assistance is a terrible prank to play on:

• 5 million children and family members who could be denied treatment for preventative interventions for malaria;
• 3,500 mothers, more than 40,000 children under 5 in danger of dying due to reduced child survival interventions;
• 400,000 people who would be turned away from life-saving treatment for HIV/AIDS. (US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton via GHI blog.)

Even the threat of the government shutting down is disruptive and does damage. Important development and anti-poverty programs have already been put on hold due to the uncertainty; for example, the launch of an innovative food security program that is expected to include a focus on rice production in Cambodia has been indefinitely postponed.

Ironically, the foreign aid that Congress is threatening to cut is more transparent, more results-focused, more rigorous, and more empowering than before. Reforms over the past two administrations—Republican and Democratic—are making US investments more effective in fighting poverty than ever.

April fools is for laughs and kicks. But the pranks should stop when it comes to cutting life-saving assistance. Take action with Oxfam America and tell Congress to stop fooling around with cuts that harm the world’s most vulnerable communities….

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