Show Me Your Budget

American financial priorities talk the talk, but might not walk the walk

By MAX KRONSTADT

For 15 years, about as long as I’ve been a fan, the Washington Capitals have hosted a ‘Salute to the Military’ night during one home game per season, featuring camo warm-up jerseys, fundraisers, and numerous standing ovations. This does not make them unique—virtually every professional sports team demonstrates appreciation for U.S. armed forces in some way. I mention the Caps only because they are my hometown team. Across the U.S., military veterans are held in the highest esteem—as they should be. Whether or not you agree with U.S. military decisions, its members are undeniably brave and make sacrifices without which the U.S. homeland would not be safe. 

Cartoon by Lo Wall

Meanwhile, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that in 2016 nearly 40,000 veterans experienced homelessness on any given night. Veterans make up about 7.3 percent of the total adult population in the U.S. but 11 percent of the adult homeless population. Our government’s inability to take adequate care of our military heroes once they return home is demonstrative of broadly misplaced priorities and a fundamental lack of empathy that pervades U.S. government and society.

Everyone agrees that the people who serve in our military deserve a stable job and house when they return home. But the money tells a different story. Under former Obama administration HUD secretary Shawn Donovan estimated in 2012 that it would cost approximately $20 billion per year to eliminate homelessness in the United States, which would require building or finding housing for nearly 170,000 people. By scaling that down to just the veteran population, we can estimate that it would cost about $4.7 billion per year to eliminate veteran homelessness. 

The federal government spent, conservatively, $1 trillion on the Iraq war between 2003 and 2016, which is about 200 times the annual cost to eliminate veteran homelessness. Our war in Afghanistan cost about $1 trillion as well, and both wars continue today and will for the foreseeable future. When it’s time for service members to fight, there’s no shortage of funds, but when they need a place to live after they come home, the money is suddenly unavailable. 

The federal government also spends $134 billion a year on homeowner subsidies, primarily the Mortgage Interest Deduction (MID). The MID allows homeowners to deduct mortgage interest payments from their taxes on their first two homes. The program was created to incentivize homeownership during the Great Depression, but it has turned into welfare for the wealthy—because the MID is bigger for bigger mortgages. More than four-fifths of the MID and other homeowner tax credits go to families making more than $100,000 a year.  For the annual cost of homeowner subsidies, we could eliminate homeless nearly seven times over. 

H.R. 2076, a “bill to provide a path to end homelessness in the United States,” was introduced by Representative Maxine Waters of California this past April. Legislative analysts gave it a 4 percent chance of passing the House of Representatives when it was first introduced, and no progress has been made to pass it to date. Fiscal hawks in the Republican party won’t even consider a plan to increase funding for housing vouchers and the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs in order to end homelessness, because it would add to the debt and increase the welfare state. But it was the neoconservatives of the Bush administration that added trillions of dollars to the debt through military escapades in the Middle East. Trump’s latest budget proposal would add $54 billion to the annual military budget.  And I haven’t heard a lot of Republican legislators clamoring to repeal one of the most expensive entitlement programs on the books—the MID. 

There is no doubt that, as a nation, we have the money to vastly improve the quality of life for the poorest among us. But there is a lot of denial. We pretend that there is an expansive social safety net to help those experiencing poverty, but there are still hundreds of thousands of people who experience chronic homelessness, and we still spend billions of dollars on tax credits for the wealthy and trillions of dollars pushing regime change abroad.  And it is shameful that we pretend that we honor and respect our veterans while we can’t muster up $5 billion a year to give them all housing. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden once told a crowd while on the campaign trail in 2008: “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”  After showing us their budget for decades, we can tell our federal government doesn’t value helping the poor or our veterans once they come home.

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