The cost of cutting deficits

When federal funds to help care for those with HIV/AIDS were delayed by a month or so by the budget fight in Congress this spring, the effects in Baltimore were severe. A Movable Feast cut food aid in half for most of the AIDS patients it served, and eliminated it entirely for their caretakers and children. The Moore Clinic for HIV Care at Johns Hopkins cut back housing grants and aid to help patients deal with diabetes and other health problems. Some 81 care organizations in Maryland have been affected by the backlog in payments caused by the bickering in Congress, and although they should be getting their full share of the state's $61 million in Ryan White Care Act funding within the next few weeks, real people have suffered in the meantime.

That's what happens to one program in one state when federal funds are merely delayed, and it serves as a cautionary tale for Congress and its newly appointed "Super Committee," which will spend the next few months seeking trillions in deficit-reduction measures. That committee's work is crucial. The nation's long-term deficits are unsustainable, and cuts to government services will be necessary.

But we should not pretend that it is only tax increases that cause pain, a notion that has become a near article of faith among congressional Republicans. Budget cuts affect real people, too, and often the poorest and most vulnerable among us. It seems particularly heartless to insist that we should make the preservation of lower tax rates for the wealthiest Americans a higher priority than, say, food for the children of destitute AIDS patients.

Getting the nation's fiscal house in order will require difficult choices, and not every worthwhile program can be preserved. But rather that brandishing empty rhetoric about "job killing" tax increases and runaway federal spending, our leaders owe it to us to acknowledge the real human cost of deficit reduction. If they don't, the price of securing our future will fall on those least able to bear it.

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