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Meeting Basic Needs: The federal budget should reflect our nation’s values

The chatter in Washington has been focused on the looming government shutdown because Congress is unable to agree on how to fund the federal government. Meanwhile, everyday Americans are experiencing rising costs for housing, childcare, health care, food and other essential needs. I know I’m not alone in my frustration with some members of Congress who are exploiting the situation by pushing to cut the social safety net.

The situation highlights how funding bills – as dull as they seem – represent some of the most important decisions by elected officials that affect the lives of everyday people. With that in mind, here are five key anti-poverty programs that are far too often at risk during these budget fights:

  • Head Start provides quality education to children under 5 from families with low incomes. About one-third of Head Start children attend programs in the South, the focus region of the Southern Poverty Law Center. If Congress fails to continue funding this program, Head Start grantees could close their centers as they did during the 2013 shutdown.
  • The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides nutritious food and services to mothers with low incomes, toddlers and preschools. But there is already a significant funding shortfall that will force states to turn away eligible families for the first time since 1997. Three states served by the SPLC – Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana – are among the top five states with the highest rates of food insecurity for children. Two other states with an SPLC presence – Georgia and Florida – rank ninth and 11th for child hunger, respectively.
  • The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) helps provide 1 in 8 people in the U.S. with access to food. The program reduces poverty, improves health outcomes and enhances economic security for families. Our five focus states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi) have some of the nation’s highest SNAP participation rates. Louisiana ranks second with 5% of residents participating in the program.
  • Medicaid provides health care coverage for 1 in 5 Americans, allowing millions of people access to life-saving prescriptions, complex medical treatments, preventive services, long-term care and other essential health care. Protecting people with low incomes from high medical costs reduces the risks of being pushed further into poverty and builds healthier communities. Medicaid is hugely impactful to our region since the Southeast experiences more adverse health outcomes and disparities when compared to the rest of the country.
  • Affordable housing and rental assistance play a critical role in the lives of many people. These programs help reduce homelessness, move families out of poverty and improve environmental conditions that affect health. An estimated 2 million people in 2022 used rental assistance programs to afford modest housing. That’s in a nation where 4 in 10 people with low incomes in the U.S. are unhoused or pay over half their income on rent. What’s more, the SPLC’s focus area of the Deep South is home to states with some of the greatest need for affordable housing and tenant rights protections due to persistently poor housing conditions.

Budgeting may not be the most exciting issue, but our nation’s budget speaks volumes about our core values. Federal investments (SPLC Action Fund) play a critical role in improving access to housing, health care, education and jobs; improving voting rights and access; increasing police accountability; reducing incarceration; and combating hate and extremism.

Your voice matters here. We must demand that the budget for a country as wealthy as ours reflects the values of the people and ensures that everyone’s basic needs are met.

Theresa Lau is the SPLC and SPLC Action Fund senior policy counsel for eradicating poverty.

Illustration at top by the SPLC