While the data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week told us the story of how much still needs to be done for the 17.9% of Nebraskan children living in poverty, the U.S. House of Representatives took steps to unravel recent gains made towards advancing the well-being of children across the country.
On Thursday, the House version of a food bill cutting $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) over the course of 10 years passed by a margin of 3 votes. The following day, the House issued its continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown on October 1st, which seeks to defund the Affordable Care Act (ACA), taking away about 70 percent of federal funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Both SNAP and CHIP have been instrumental in ensuring that the basic needs of all children are met, especially for families that have been affected by the economic recession.
Leading voices behind the SNAP bill claim that it is targeted at able-bodied adults without dependents through stricter work requirements, but the contents of the legislation represents an expansive contraction of assistance, including across-the-board cuts for an average of $36 per month. The effect of these cuts on children is unmistakable: 72% of SNAP recipients belong to families with children and some 210,000 children would lose access to much-needed free school meals.
Although the vote was largely along party lines, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry broke with his colleagues to speak out on behalf of over 86,000 Nebraska children who receive SNAP benefits and over 43,000 Nebraska adults living with children. The current program already imposes repressive asset limitations on families and lacks training support for unemployed individuals struggling to find jobs in the depressed labor market, but the new bill would bring the program even further away from its purpose of public assistance and economic stability.
Additionally, since its reform in 2009, CHIP has been monumental in addressing the consequences of child poverty by connecting low-income families with children’s insurance coverage. Participation rates for eligible children increased across the country— the state participation rate increased over 10% from 2010 to 2011, with nearly 53,000 Nebraskan children covered by CHIP. The effect of the new cuts would be devastating for nearly 8 million American children in families that are already struggling financially.
Senate leaders have condemned the two House votes, so a difficult and lengthy process lies ahead before both houses of Congress can send a bill to President Obama. Meanwhile, the future of nation— and the well-being of 16.4 million American children living in poverty— hangs in the balance. The country’s political elite continues to engage in an increasingly polarized debate of ideology, but there is little to dispute over the fundamental importance of food and health in a child’s development. As politicians mull over social policy, they should consider the profound and lasting implications that socioeconomic circumstances have on behavior, physical and emotional health, and academic achievement in the development of the next generation of Americans.