Last week, President Bush submitted his proposed fiscal year 2004 budget to Congress. By doing so, he appeared to be taking a break from the war plans that are defining his presidency. But Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund says the president's budget shows he never left attack mode. She says Bush has launched "a budget war against poor children," including sweeping changes to Head Start and Medicaid that advocates say could dismantle those programs.

The connection to the real shooting war looming with Iraq should be obvious. Sooner or later, every U.S. cruise missile launched toward a Baghdad ghetto is going to mean that much less in school lunches or help for seniors struggling to pay for prescription drugs. We elected a president and a Congress that have elevated guns over butter, and now the domestic pantry is going to be bare for a long time.

As the saying goes, "Do the math": According to Bush Administration officials, the war with Iraq could cost as much as $200 billion. Combine that with the president's proposed tax cut, $670 billion, mostly for the wealthiest Americans, and it adds up to some pretty lean times for Indianapolis folks who rely on government services like after-school programs and child care help.

One of the hardest hit areas will be the nation's affordable housing programs. There is arguably nothing more important for family and social stability than a safe and affordable home. But for many of us, that type of home is out of reach.

Each year the National Low-Income Housing Coalition calculates the "housing wage" - the amount a full-time worker must earn to be able to afford a two-bedroom rental unit while paying for other necessities. In Indianapolis, the housing wage for a full-time worker is $11.31 an hour. Tens of thousands of local households don't come close to making that kind of wage.

Two summers ago, Indianapolis saw the real-world implication of those figures. In August 2001, the Indianapolis Housing Agency, the city's provider and administrator of federally-subsidized housing, temporarily opened a long-closed waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers. Those vouchers represent a federal subsidy that allows low-income persons to rent a home at a cost no greater than the recommended 30 percent of their income.

The day Section 8 applications were to be accepted, lines of people snaked around the block from the IHA office. Ultimately, 17,000 applied just to be in a lottery for a place on the waiting list. Five thousand names were chosen, the rest were turned away, and the Section 8 list has been shut down ever since. Now, with scarce affordable housing and a limping economy, local shelters are reporting record numbers of homeless families desperately seeking a place to stay.

"We will just scrap and beg"

How does the Bush Administration respond to this crisis? It has informed IHA and other public housing agencies that they will face at least a 10 percent budget cut next year, and talk is that the actual reduction may be closer to 30 percent. "At the local level, we have no choice but to just try to maintain a balance of housing and services while the federal government continues to cut," says Rufus "Bud" Myers, IHA's executive director. "We will just scrap and beg to keep the essential things we need to provide our residents."

Myers shares his dilemma with housing directors in every American city, and the impending public housing cuts suggest the problem is only going to worsen. Just as Edelman accuses President Bush of aiming to cripple Head Start and Medicaid, her housing counterpart, the Low-Income Housing Coalition's Sheila Crowley, says large budget cuts are an ominous sign. "It does not take much cynicism to believe that this is just the opening play in a plan to starve public housing out of existence," Crowley says.

Myers says one answer to the Bush budget problems is to better support affordable housing at the local level. He and others, including state Rep. William Crawford, have argued for finding local revenue to fill the city's near-empty low-income housing trust fund. But a City-County Council proposal to direct property taxes to that fund died last fall without significant support from either council party or Mayor Bart Peterson.

Nevertheless, Myers says he holds out hope that affordable housing will take its place with other city priorities. "If we can fund Conseco Fieldhouse and the RCA Dome as public housing for highly-paid athletes, surely we can fund public housing for those who really need it," he says.

Fran Quigley is a contributing editor to NUVO, where this article originally appeared - ....