February 22 2011
America Needs Kitchen-Table Budgeting
President Obama says he wants Washington to do some kitchen-table style budgeting. In his weekly address last week he discussed a letter from an American family and commented, "Families across this country understand what it takes to manage a budget...Well it's time Washington acted as responsibly as our families do."
In a lot of American homes, Mom and Dad sit together at the kitchen table to make hard decisions about what their family can or cannot afford. But in even more homes, Mom sits at the kitchen table alone, handling the family's finances herself. In fact, the letter President Obama referenced was written by a woman - a working wife and mother preparing to take on a second job for her family's sake.
Women know a lot about personal and family finances. They often do the household shopping and make decisions about big financial issues, such as mortgages, insurance, and childcare. So women's perspective on the national budget would be a valuable contribution to the debate.
Unfortunately, mainstream American women seem to have little voice in Washington. In a November 2010 poll, 61 percent of female respondents said the government needs to stop spending now in order to stop increases in the national debt. These women understand that government often wastes money in a way that no woman would allow in her own family. These women understand that Washington's "business as usual" is no longer an option and that tough choices need to be made.
But the attitudes of these women are lost in the comments made by too many groups that claim to speak for women. For example, Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal writes on their blog that proposed budget cuts from House Republicans "launch a new war on women," and show "contempt for women's programs."
Yet most American women are likely to have a more thoughtful reaction to proposed cuts. They understand that our nation must set priorities, and that the federal government was never intended to take on all of the responsibilities it assumes today.
In many ways, the current budget debate boils down to a fundamental argument about the role of government. If the government focused on those functions described in the Constitution - establishing justice, providing for the common defense, securing our liberties, and facilitating commerce among the states - we wouldn't face a budget crisis today. The problem is that the federal government has gone way beyond those boundaries, creating many new programs and displacing the private sector in the process.
It's clear that the government cannot afford to continue on its current path. Entitlement programs, particularly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, are becoming rapidly more expensive and, without reform, will consume a growing portion of the federal budget, crowding out other priorities. Budget-savvy American women know that something must be done. They are unlikely to fall for charges that any proposed changes represent a gutting of these programs or threaten the poor. They are going to want to hear the details-to know that the most vulnerable are being protected-but will likely understand and sympathize with the need to make sensible changes to bring costs down.
Today, feminists are trying demonize changes to other programs, such as Head Start and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which face big cuts in the House Republicans' proposal ($1.83 billion and $758 million respectively), as "draconian." But women are going to want to hear more.
They know that many government programs don't work how they are supposed to. When they hear about the government-mandated study that failed to find any meaningful lasting benefits for Head Start participants, many will not only support cuts, but be interested in hearing about larger reforms to the program.
Similarly, women are likely to want to take a closer look at WIC, and will find that this program also has some important unintended consequences. Despite attempts to educate and encourage the program's beneficiaries about the importance of breastfeeding, the program facilitates the use of formula, to the detriment of children's health. In fact, 54 percent of the baby formula in the United States is consumed by WIC participants, a number out of proportion with the number of infants in the program. This phenomenon is so great that WIC has disrupted the baby formula market and affected prices for other paying customers.
Women, even those who benefit from these programs, know that there will be costs and consequences to allowing our government to continue racking up trillion dollar deficits. They know that this has negative effects on the economy, impedes job creation today, and will leave a bigger burden on the next generation.
Women across the country who practice kitchen-table budgeting for their families do their best to make ends meet and save for the future because they love their families, and want to improve their family's prospects. These women know that the same needs to be done at the federal level to put us all back on the road to a prosperity that will exist not just today, but for future generations.