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Opinion :: Budget debate must begin with uncomfortable questions about local impact
· 12:18pm February 20th, 2013
Warning: This column is going to make you uncomfortable.
But if you want to be an informed participant in the debate over "sequester" or any other budget issue, you need to learn the answers to a few questions.
But first, Americans need to learn to ask more questions.
Financial advisors tell you, as an individual, that the first step toward financial success is knowing where all of your money goes now.
With that in mind, I have just five specific questions -- although a full budget debate would include thousands of questions as specific and uncomfortable as these five. These questions ask about ways that federal spending specifically impacts Vinton and Benton County.
1. What percentage of sales at Fareway involve customers using SNAP (food stamps)?
2. How many Kirkwood Community College students qualify for more financial aid Pell grants than their education at Kirkwood actually costs, resulting in the government actually paying them, in addition to covering the cost of their tuition?
3. How much money has the government paid Benton County farmers in crop and other subsidies since 1995?
4. What impact does the Earned Income Tax Credit have on the local economy?
5. How many area people have jobs because of U.S. defense spending (not to mention other direct or indirect employment)?
To most of those questions, the answer is: I do not really know. Most people -- including members of Congress -- are equally unable to answer them.
Now, before those of you with opinions about taxes and spending reach for the comment link, I need you to know that I am not criticizing these programs. Neither am I advocating them.
I am just asking.
For virtually ever program that someone calls "government wasted," there is someone who can offer a logical, reasonable explanation for why government should spend that money, and how stopping that program would have a series of negative effects on our nation's economy.
I am simply stating that in order to understand why the federal government is -- according to the Feb. 20, 2012 Debt Clock page -- $16.5 trillion in debt, we need to understand everything -- yes everything -- that our government spends.
The government's own website tells us that direct payments and grants take up more than 2/3 of the federal budget. We need to understand the specifics of everything government pays for, and the impact of that federal spending on individuals and local economies, before deciding whether their cost merits continuing -- and if so, how to fund them.
My research has helped me to answer some of the five questions above, but not all of them. Here are my best guesses:
1. Neither the federal government nor the Iowa Grocers Association release those figures, but those who count guess that for most Iowa grocery stores, it's about 14 percent. Nationally the SNAP program spending makes up just over 10 percent of total grocery sales. One grocer who has several Minnesota stores, however, said that in his company, SNAP customers represent 34 percent of his sales.
2. I do not know, although the federal government says it pays between $8M and $9.6M each year in financial aid to about 60 percent of the estimated 26,000 students who attend Kirkwood.
3. According to the EWG, a total of 3,152 Benton County farmers received more than $328 million in crop, disaster, conservation and insurance subsidies between 1995 and 2011. Even though some people in urban areas consider this an example of wasteful spending, farm advocates can explain very logically the reasons that the current financial system has made relying on these payments necessary for farmers to make a living.
4. The U.S. Conference of Mayors says that for every dollar the federal government spends on the EITC, more than $1.50 is added to the economies of the cities where those receiving those credits live.
5. While the actual number depends on who is counting, more than 100,000 Iowans work in defense-related jobs; Rockwell-Collins leaders said last month that the budget cuts being debated in Congress could cost 1,000 jobs in that company.
These are just five of the countless areas of spending that impact our federal budget, the federal debt, and our national economy. Our path to fiscal responsibility must begin with a long -- and yes, at times tense and tedious -- discussion of how much the government spends and what will happen if it stops.
Yes, I know: our budget discussion also requires us to debate tax policy. Look for a column -- and more uncomfortable questions -- on that soon.
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