Despite Deficit Fear Mongering, NDD Spending is Historically Low

December 18, 2023 Finn Storer

Despite Deficit Fear Mongering, NDD Spending is Historically Low

The public overwhelmingly opposes further cuts and favors more investment in critical non-defense discretionary (NDD) programs.

The next spending fight in Congress is just weeks away, and a shutdown remains possible. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has demanded major cuts to non-defense discretionary (NDD) spending as part of any long-term spending deal. These cuts, which are being justified through fear mongering about the deficit, would destabilize millions of families and weaken our economy.

But after a decade of spending caps and austerity measures, NDD spending today is already historically low. And as many experts have correctly pointed out, tax cuts, not spending on critical programs, are most responsible for the rise in the debt ratio.

As a percentage of GDP, NDD spending has been falling since 2010, reaching a record low of 3.1% of GDP in 2019. That’s the lowest since official data started in 1962. While our economy has grown, NDD spending hasn’t kept up, despite a brief spike in NDD spending to protect our economy and public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. That spending funded key programs that cut child poverty nearly in half and drove major gains for low-income workers. All of this was great for our economy.

The erosion of public investment over time has had devastating consequences for our economy and the people who drive it. ”

The erosion of public investment over time has had devastating consequences for our economy and the people who drive it. Declining investment means federal housing assistance only reaches one in four households who might otherwise benefit, leaving more than 7 million households severely rent-burdened or stuck in substandard housing. Head Start serves 95,000 fewer children than it did a decade ago. The Social Security Administration has lost 13% of its staff since 2010, which means longer wait times for critical benefits for seniors and disabled people. Continuing to hack away at these programs and agencies leaves all of us worse off.

But these historically low spending levels have not deterred the push to further disinvest from national priorities. Over the last year, House Republicans have proposed more steep cuts to NDD spending, beyond the already-painful cuts agreed to in the May debt limit deal. These proposals include slashing Title I funding, which would leave 26 million low-income students without more than 200,000 teachers and aides, and a more than 50% cut to fruit and vegetable benefits for low-income families in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Earlier this year, then-Speaker McCarthy labeled the debt “the greatest threat to our future.” Last month, Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) tweeted about “Washington’s spending addiction” to justify spending cuts. The reality is that the Bush and Trump tax cuts are 90% responsible for the change in our debt-to-GDP ratio since 2001. These debunked theories about the causes and consequences of the deficit mirror both the myth of trickle-down economics and the post-Great Recession playbook that led to a decade of stagnant economic growth and a grueling, jobless recovery.

These proposals are extreme on their own, but in the context of already historically low NDD spending, they are unfathomable.”

These proposals are extreme on their own, but in the context of already historically low NDD spending, they are unfathomable. For decades, we have underinvested in the people who drive our economy forward. The public does not support further austerity. Recent polling from Navigator shows that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to the cuts Republicans are trying to make to schools, food assistance, housing programs, child care, and more. In fact, most people aren’t just opposed to cuts — they want more investment in these key programs.

Empowering workers, increasing access to child care and affordable housing, and providing quality education are the building blocks for a strong and resilient economy. Slashing into these priorities in the name of deficit reduction will only set our economy back. Lawmakers must resist deficit fear mongering as they try to avoid an unnecessary government shutdown.