News Article

How sequestration might affect Virginia’s children

Federal Budget

Richmond Times-Dispatch

As the federal “fiscal cliff” approaches, we’re hearing more about how various scenarios would affect politicians, defense contractors, high-income taxpayers, seniors and other constituencies. But an important group of Virginians with a lot on the line has been largely ignored: children.

The stakes are immense, because the recession has been hard on children. A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Urban Institute found that more than 100,000 Virginia children live with an unemployed parent — about the population of Roanoke. Compared to 2007, that’s nearly a 92 percent increase — and when you look at kids living with a long-term unemployed parent, the increase is more than 600 percent. Virginia’s need for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) has increased more than 78 percent. And one out of every seven Virginia children now lives in poverty — a 28 percent increase since the start of the recession.

Federal investments can — and do — protect children from the worst harms of a bad economy. Together, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit lift nearly 5 million children out of poverty nationwide. Both credits are bipartisan policies that reward hard work. And both support local economies, helping parents buy food, clothes and other basics from area merchants. Likewise, federal unemployment benefits raise 600,000 children out of poverty.

But it’s not just cash in parents’ pockets that makes a difference for kids. The child hunger rate would be much higher without SNAP, which provides food for more than 20 million children. SNAP also boosts 1.7 million children out of poverty, as fewer parents must make the heartbreaking choice between paying the rent and putting food on the table. And the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid are critical lifelines, with CHIP focused specifically on kids and children accounting for half of the Americans who get the health care they need through Medicaid. Together, these successful investments have driven the uninsured rate among children to record lows, even as the recession has cost millions of parents their employer-sponsored health insurance.

The American people get it. An Election Day poll found overwhelming bipartisan support for investments that protect kids. More than 80 percent of voters (including about 75 percent of Republicans) want Congress to protect family tax credits that move kids out of poverty. About the same share want Congress to protect CHIP and to deliver a concrete plan to cut child poverty in half. And, if they were making federal budget decisions, voters would more than triple the budget share invested in kids.

Yet Congress has placed each of these investments — and many more that protect kids from economic harm — on the chopping block. If Congress fails to avert the fiscal cliff, important poverty-reducing improvements to unemployment benefits, the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit will automatically be repealed. Doing nothing also triggers automatic cuts to education funding and other important investments.

But some of the “solutions” on the table would do as much or more harm than doing nothing. For example, the budget plan passed by the U.S. House of Representatives would actually restrict kids’ access to the Child Tax Credit, raising taxes on working poor families. That same plan, touted by House leadership as a blueprint for fiscal cliff negotiations, would also make deep cuts to SNAP and put the health care of 30 million children at risk by fundamentally undermining Medicaid and ending CHIP.

That’s why it’s so important for parents — and every Virginian who wants the next generation of leaders, innovators, consumers and workers to succeed — to send a clear message to Congress: Don’t cut children’s services. Yes, the federal government has serious budget problems, but kids didn’t create them. Denying children the education, health care, basic nutrition and child care they need to grow and thrive is not a solution. Keep the policies and investments that offer a way out of poverty and provide the basic building blocks of successful adult lives.

Contact Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus Campaign for Children, at brucel@firstfocus.net. Contact John R. Morgan, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, at john@vakids.org.