’98 budget leaves out low-income families

Eager to avert the legislative stalemate that twice last year forced him to close down the federal government, President Clinton has proposed a relatively uncontroversial fiscal 1998 budget aimed at encouraging a more friendly and productive round of negotiations. Both Republicans and Democrats are lining up behind the president’s pledge to prioritize expansion of educational opportunities for the nation’s youth.
Proposed initiatives aimed at making higher education more accessible are, in fact, a principle source of the long overdue bipartisan commitment among congressional leaders to work together to approve a budget in a civil and expedient manner. Although we can’t help but hope that partisan squabbling is kept to a minimum, the president’s education initiatives nevertheless require careful and thoughtful revisions. Specifically, the government must do a better job of extending financial support to students from low-income families.
Clinton’s budget proposal calls for an initial 17 percent rise in the federal deficit over the next couple of years before trailing off and creating a $17 billion surplus in 2002. The suggested 40 percent increase in education investments are projected to raise spending by about $50 billion over the next five years. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of that money would be handed out indiscriminately in tuition tax credits to families, totaling about $35 billion. But most low-income families don’t even qualify for such tax credits, while those credits provide assistance primarily to students who could realistically afford higher education even without them. In addition, economic analysts predict that universities are certain to respond to the tax credits by raising tuition, undermining the government’s efforts to make higher education a possibility for citizens in every economic tier.
Worse, Clinton’s proposal only calls for a $2 billion increase in federal Pell Grants, which provide financial support to low-income families. Tossing more money to pad funds for tuition tax credits may be good politics. It precludes opposition to the increase in spending from Republican members of Congress who boast a mostly middle-class electoral base. But it will do little to stimulate economic and social mobility among the nation’s less economically privileged classes. Clinton should encourage legislators, such as Sen. Paul Wellstone, who are pushing for a revision that would transfer some of the proposed money for planned tuition tax cuts to federal funds for financial aid grants that target low-income families.
Clinton’s efforts to provide a reasonable starting point for further deliberations will only succeed if his more conservative opponents in Congress are willing to work with the administration to construct an agenda for diminishing the deficit that prioritizes economic mobility for all citizens. In time, investment in education will fuel economic productivity and generate money for the government that can be used to pay off federal debts. It will also reduce citizens’ dependence on government programs. Plotting a fiscally responsible pathway into the next century will require leaders of both parties to work through their different beliefs about the responsibility of the government to make higher education accessible for students from every class.