What Is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities?

The Center's Mission | The Evolution of the Center | Areas of the Center's Work
What Makes the Center Unique | What Makes the Center Effective | What Others Say About the Center

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is one of the nation’s premier policy organizations working at the federal and state levels on fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals.

About the Center

The Center conducts research and analysis to help shape public debates over proposed budget and tax policies and to help ensure that policymakers consider the needs of low-income families and individuals in these debates.  We also develop policy options to alleviate poverty.

In addition, the Center examines the short- and long-term impacts of proposed policies on the health of the economy and the soundness of federal and state budgets.  Among the issues we explore are whether federal and state governments are fiscally sound and have sufficient revenue to address critical priorities, both for low-income populations and for the nation as a whole.

Over the past 30 years, the Center has gained a reputation for producing materials that are balanced, authoritative, accessible to non-specialists, and responsive to issues facing the country.  Our materials are used by policymakers and non-profit organizations across the political spectrum, and by journalists from a wide variety of TV, radio, print, and online outlets.

The Evolution of the Center

The Center was founded in 1981 to analyze federal budget priorities, with particular emphasis on the impact of various budget choices on low-income Americans.  Our work has broadened considerably over the years as we have responded to new developments and entered new areas of research.

Most notably, the Center initiated extensive work on budget priorities and low-income programs at the state level during the 1990s in response to the devolution of responsibility over many areas of low-income policy from Washington to the states.  State work, which we conduct in part through the Center’s State Fiscal Project, now comprises about half of the Center’s activities.  We provide information and technical assistance to state non-profit organizations and government officials on issues ranging from state budget priorities and revenue structures to the design and implementation of low-income programs.

At the state level, we also collaborate with non-profits — including members of the State Priorities Partnership — to build their capacity to conduct sound budget and policy analysis and participate effectively in policy debates.  With our assistance, a rising number of these groups are working on fiscal priorities and new directions in alleviating poverty.

At the international level, the Center established the International Budget Partnership in 1997 to help civil society organizations in new democracies (such as former Soviet republics) and developing countries conduct budget analysis designed to make these countries’ budget systems more open and more responsive to the needs of society.

Areas of the Center’s Work

Fiscal issues:  The Center analyzes major federal budget and tax proposals from the standpoint of fiscal responsibility, examining their effects on the economy and the federal budget, especially over the long term.  For example, we explore the potential impact of these proposals on the long-term fiscal challenges posed by the retirement of the baby-boom generation.  We also examine the effects of major tax proposals on households in different income groups.

In addition, the Center explores the tradeoffs between competing budget and tax proposals that reflect different priorities, such as tax cuts that primarily benefit upper-income households versus investments in programs aimed at low- and moderate-income households or initiatives that benefit the nation as a whole, such as improving education or protecting the environment.

Our involvement in fiscal issues is extensive at both the federal and state levels, and it includes analysis of the effects that federal policy choices can have on state budgets.

Low-income programs and tax areas:  The Center analyzes proposed changes in federal and state programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals.  One issue we consider is how a proposal would affect the federal-state relationship in administering these programs: we seek to enhance state flexibility while retaining federal financial commitments and federal legal protections for program recipients.  We also help implement changes in these programs.

In addition, the Center designs improvements to make these programs more accessible to eligible populations, more effective in helping beneficiaries meet basic needs while moving toward self-sufficiency, and simpler to administer for federal and state governments.  We work on programs such as:

  • Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (for example, by encouraging efforts to expand health coverage among low-income working families);
  • Food stamps (for example, by designing and promoting state options to simplify and streamline food stamp procedures and thereby boost participation among working-poor families);
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (for example, by helping states design programs that can help TANF recipients succeed in the workplace and increase their earnings);
  • Supplemental Security Income (for example, by promoting policies that increase the fairness and accuracy of the disability determination process);
  • WIC and child nutrition (for example, by helping states contain WIC costs by negotiating advantageous contracts with infant formula manufacturers);
  • Low-income housing programs (for example, by designing improvements to help families with housing assistance use it to move to areas with better job opportunities).
  • Low-income tax credits (for example, by developing proposals to improve the operation of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit and by helping states create or expand state EITCs).

The Center’s work on means-tested programs includes our efforts to improve the access of low-income legal immigrants to these programs, both by expanding eligibility and by removing barriers that prevent already-eligible immigrants from obtaining benefits.  The Center is tapped as a source of analysis and innovative policy options by a variety of organizations that work on immigrant issues, as well as by federal and state policymakers.

In addition, the Center is expanding its activities to design and promote reforms in the benefit structure of programs — particularly Supplemental Security Income, TANF, and Social Security — to encourage disabled individuals to return to work.

Outreach campaigns:  Programs designed to reduce poverty among working poor families are less effective if eligible families and individuals do not know the benefits exist or how to apply for them.  Accordingly, the Center operates two outreach campaigns to help working poor families receive two key benefits for which they are eligible:  low-income tax credits (specifically, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit) and children’s health insurance through Medicaid or other state child health insurance programs.

  • More than 6,000 non-profit organizations and government agencies across the country participate in the Center’s EITC outreach campaign, the nation’s largest sustained private sector campaign to promote a public benefit.  Participants include governors, mayors, state and local agencies, United Ways, religious organizations, utility companies and other businesses, labor unions, day care centers, and community development corporations.
  • The Start Healthy, Stay Healthy campaign enlists a wide array of community-based organizations, health and human services providers, advocacy groups, program administrators, and others to identify uninsured children from working families who may be eligible for free or low-cost health insurance programs and to help enroll them.  The campaign also designs and promotes policy improvements to make children’s health insurance programs more accessible to eligible families.

Social insurance programs and pensions:  The Center evaluates Social Security reform proposals, examining their implications for the program’s basic social insurance character and long-term solvency, as well as their effects on the federal budget.  (Several prominent reform proposals would require the transfer of large amounts of general revenue to Social Security.)  We also examine ways to ensure long-term solvency that also strengthen rather than weaken Social Security for low-income and minority beneficiaries.

Our work on the unemployment insurance system includes analyzing the adequacy of unemployment benefits programs in helping low-income workers meet basic needs during temporary spells of unemployment.  We also design improvements to those programs.  This work intensifies during economic downturns.

In collaboration with the Brookings Institution, we evaluate pension reform proposals to determine their likely effect on pension coverage for low-income households.  Also, to help low-income families make high-return investments such as homeownership or a college education and to prepare for retirement, we promote asset building among these families.  This work includes promoting policy improvements targeted to families who build modest assets through Individual Development Accounts or retirement accounts such as 401(k)s.

Poverty and income trends:  The Center analyzes trends in poverty and income at both the national and state levels, including trends in income disparities.  For example, we publish periodic reports that provide state-by-state data on income disparities and state tax burdens on poor households.  We also examine the effectiveness of safety-net programs in reducing poverty.

What Makes the Center Unique

While numerous other non-profit organizations work in one or more of the policy areas listed above, the Center possesses a combination of strengths that is unique:

  • Because the Center has expertise in both fiscal policy and low-income program policy, it can help strengthen low-income programs while taking budget realities into account — and to help non-profit groups that focus on low-income programs participate effectively in budget debates.
  • Because of the Center’s in-depth knowledge of low-income program design, it is relied upon by federal agencies, members of Congress of both parties and their staffs, state government officials, and various national and grassroots non-profit organizations, for detailed, practical, politically feasible policy proposals.
  • Because the Center conducts substantial work at both the federal and state levels, it can identify the often-overlooked effects (both positive and negative) that policy choices at one level can have on the other level and to develop appropriate responses.
  • Because the Center works on a broad range of programs affecting low-income populations, it can identify complex interactions that can occur between programs and design ways to use those interactions to make programs more accessible to eligible individuals and families.

What Makes the Center Effective

Forces for Good:  The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, published in 2007 with support from the Aspen Institute Nonprofit Sector and Philanthropy Program, highlights the Center as one of the nation’s 12 most effective nonprofits.  It notes that despite having the smallest annual budget of the 12 groups, the Center “has influenced federal and state policies and budget decisions that have affected the lives of millions of low-income Americans” and is “a great example of getting more bang for your buck.” 

Information dissemination:  One reason for the Center’s effectiveness is the speed with which we disseminate the results of our research and analysis.  We post Center reports immediately and in their entirety to our website, which receives millions of “hits” each month.  We also operate email notification lists that instantly inform hundreds of reporters, policymakers, non-profits, and other interested individuals whenever we post a new analysis.

Trainings and technical assistance: The Center’s effectiveness also derives in part from the trainings and technical assistance we provide to state-level non-profits to expand their capacity to conduct policy analysis on issues related to state fiscal issues, budget priorities, and low-income programs. (The International Budget Partnership provides similar assistance to non-profits in other countries.) We also assist policymakers and their staffs on fiscal issues and issues related to low-income program design.

What Others Say About the Center

  • “[The Center’s] statistical work is absolutely impeccable. If you care about [fiscal issues], check CBPP’s site regularly for updates.”
    — Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman
  • “[I]n a political environment rife with ideological warfare and poisoned by partisanship, the Center’s knack for getting things done sets it apart from  . . . well, from just about everybody else in Washington.”
    — Steven Pearlstein, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist
  • “The invaluable Center on Budget and Policy Priorities … [has] been the go-to resource for consistently reliable analysis on matters of budgets and fiscal policy at every level of government.”
    — Vice President Joseph Biden
  • “The Center is one of the nation’s premier policy organizations. Its analysis is used by policymakers and nonprofit organizations across the political spectrum.”
    — Independent Sector
  • “[CBPP’s] staff includes not only some of the most reputable federal budget analysts in Washington, but the analysts that other analysts go to for information, advice and reality checks. They’re highly experienced, credentialed and credible. Even those who disagree with the CBPP’s politics seldom, if ever, argue with its understanding of the budget process.”
    — Stan Collender, leading budget expert and Roll Call columnist
  • “In a year that was all about budget issues, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities lived up to its name. Whether you were looking for the latest numbers on state budget cuts, a quick analysis of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposals, or simply an introduction to where your tax dollars go, CBPP lived up to its reputation as the fastest, fairest, and smartest policy think tank in Washington.”
    — Ezra Klein, Washington Post, in naming CBPP as Think Tank of the Year (2011)
  • “Since founding this non-partisan budget think tank in 1981, Greenstein  has earned a reputation as a fair and thoughtful financial expert, often called upon to slice and dice the numbers and then weigh in on their cumulative effects…. As a key architect of the 1977 Food Stamp Act and a full-throated advocate for the country’s working poor, his findings are usually framed in terms of this oft-underserved demographic.”
    Washington Life, The Power 100 — Special Report (2012)


Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein named the Center 2011's "Think Tank of the Year," calling CBPP the "fastest, fairest, and smartest policy think tank in Washington."


Video Honoring

Richard W. Boone, Co-Founder of the Center



Video: Independent Sector honors Robert Greenstein with the John W. Gardner Leadership Award


Video Commemorating the Center's 25th Anniversary


Video: The State Priorities Partnership


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