Joan Entmacher

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–President Bush raised the heat on Congress to slash federal funding for government programs in a speech Wednesday, a move that critics say would benefit the rich over the poor–and shortchange women in the process.

In a speech to the Economic Club of Washington in Washington, D.C., Bush said he is open to a controversial push by House conservatives to cut $50 billion over five years from federal entitlement programs, many of are focused on aiding women and children. That is $15 billion more than was approved in the budget blueprint adopted in April.

Republicans argue that the deeper budget cuts are necessary to offset the government spending needed because of Hurricane Katrina. They hope to reclaim the mantle of fiscal conservatism at a time when a Republican president has presided over high government spending on the war in Iraq, a new prescription drug benefit and emergency relief.

Democrats and some Republican moderates disagree, setting up a possible showdown in Congress.

On top of the budget cuts, Republican leaders are hammering out the details of legislation that would deliver up to $70 billion in tax cuts, most of which are expected to benefit wealthy individuals and corporations.

Linda Basch

Together, the tax and budget cuts would deal women a double blow, said Linda Basch, president of the National Council for Research on Women in New York and an author of a forthcoming book, "Taxes ARE a Woman’s Issue: Reframing the Debate," to be published in March.

Not only will women suffer from scaled-back government services in areas such as health care, child support collection, food stamps, housing subsidies and heating assistance, they will also not reap much–if anything at all–from a tax relief package skewed toward wealthy individuals and corporations, Basch said.

Women Disproportionately Hurt

Joel Friedman, a tax analyst at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., agreed: "There’s a mismatch between who’s winning and losing," he said.

Women will also pay a price in the longer term, he said. Tax cuts widen the deficit, which puts pressure on lawmakers to reduce it by cutting spending, raising taxes or a combination. Lawmakers will probably rely heavily on spending cuts, he said, because they tend to be less politically painful, especially if they come from programs that aid the poor, a constituency with relatively low voting participation and little political clout.

Women stand to lose the most from scaled-back services because they are more financially vulnerable, Basch said. Women are more likely to have part-time jobs, be single parents, have fewer economic resources, earn less and live longer.

For women, Basch said, tax cuts are essentially quality-of-life cuts.

Defending Tax Cuts

Proponents of the GOP’s budget package defended the tax and budget cuts, saying women as a group will benefit from both.

 Carrie Lukas

Tax cuts will put more money in all individuals’ pockets, said Carrie Lukas, director of policy at the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. Those, along with a leaner budget, will stimulate the economy, which will in turn encourage businesses to hire more employees, including women, Lukas said.

Lukas also defended tax cuts for wealthier individuals, saying the rich pay more in taxes and therefore will inevitably receive more relief when taxes are cut.

"That doesn’t mean people who aren’t paying income taxes don’t benefit from a tax cut," she said.

Chris Butler, a spokesperson for Americans for Tax Reform, a fiscally conservative advocacy group in Washington, D.C., argued that tax relief should not be used to level out incomes between certain segments of society.

"Fair doesn’t really enter into the picture," he said, adding, "What you want to try and do is reduce everyone’s tax burden overall. The goal here is not to do some kind of socialistic enterprise."

Tax Cut Wish List

Congress set aside $70 billion for tax cuts when it passed the fiscal 2006 budget resolution in April. Now, Republicans–who control the tax writing committees in both chambers–are writing up their tax cut wish list.

One proposal would provide temporary relief from taxes on capital gains and dividend income earned from stock market investments; another would temporarily keep the alternative minimum tax–initially designed to prevent wealthy individuals from using loopholes to avoid paying their full tax dues–from hitting middle- and upper middle-income households; and a third would repeal the estate tax.

Also near the top of the list are some corporate tax breaks and deductions for higher education as well as for state and local taxes, Friedman said. Aimed at the middle- and lower-incomes is a laundry list of relatively smaller breaks, including a deduction for classroom expenses for teachers and incentives to encourage employers to hire long-term welfare recipients and other low-income employees, he said.

Meanwhile, House appropriators are trying to wring $50 billion in savings from the federal budget. Senate Republicans are working on a similar measure.

In the offing are cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, foster care, child support collection and other federal programs upon which women disproportionately rely.

Joan Entmacher, a budget analyst at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., said women are 71 percent of adult recipients of Medicaid; 69 percent of adult recipients of food stamps; and 90 percent of adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Nearly 3 in 10 female-headed households live in poverty and women’s median annual earnings dropped last year as the overall rate of poverty increased, according to the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Negotiators from both chambers will work out their differences before a vote on final passage, expected before Congress adjourns for the year.

Until then, Entmacher, Basch and others pledged to work to build opposition to the cuts.

"We are certainly doing everything we can to create pressure and outrage all across the country at these misplaced priorities," Entmacher said.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.