A false choice on kids, federal budget

Dec. 01, 2012 @ 03:36 PM

To keep my exuberant toddlers in check, I used a time-tested technique most parents are familiar with. When it came time to make an important decision (which pants to wear? what to have for snack?), I would give them two choices, both of which were perfectly acceptable to me. They would pick one, and we would sail on.

Then, inevitably, came the day when in response to, "Should we have apples or cheese for snack?" the answer came back: "ice cream!" Alas. My children had learned to think outside the box -- to realize that I was artificially limiting their choices and that better outcomes were possible.

Well lately, Congress has been doing the same thing to us. When faced with an unacceptably high national deficit, they have been trying to make us believe that we have only two choices: slash critical investments in our children and working families today, or burden our children later with paralyzing debt. But there is another way: let the wealthiest two percent of Americans pay their fair share.

On January 2, 2013, if no better solution is found, Congress will cut spending across the board by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Critical children's programs — education, early childhood, health, nutrition and more — would lose $6.4 billion in 2013 alone. These cuts would have immediate and long-lasting detrimental effects on our children's opportunities.

 In North Carolina, 51,000 fewer at-risk students would receive federal education dollars, and 14,000 fewer special education students would be served. More than 6,000 children would lose early education opportunities. Nearly 22,000 pregnant mothers and children would be cut from nutrition assistance. Women, children and families would lose health services — 66,000 of them — and 5,500 fewer children would receive the standard childhood vaccinations. We would also see losses in housing, child abuse and neglect prevention, military education and child safety.

The current U.S. House plan would cut children still further. In order to avoid any cuts to the military, the House proposes to slash nutrition assistance, health care for children and families, and tax credits for working families by an additional $202 billion over the next 10 years. Nationally, that would mean that two million people would lose nutrition assistance and 300,000 children would be kicked off school lunch. Nearly 14 million children could lose their health insurance. More than 1.5 million children could lose access to child protective services and nearly half a million would be denied foster care. Five and a half million children and their families would lose the benefit of the Child Tax Credit.

It is well known that investments in early childhood -- in education, health, safety and nutrition -- pay high dividends in the future. Prevention now is always cheaper - and more humane - than treatment and penalties later. Yet these devastating cuts to children are being presented as necessary... for our children! If we don't do something now about the deficit, the standard line goes, then our children will inherit a staggering debt to repay.

 But like my children's snack options, there is another choice: a reasonable, balanced approach to lowering the debt that includes both some spending cuts and some revenue increases. In fact, just allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest two percent of Americans – those who make over $250,000 annually – could prevent about $1 trillion over ten years in cuts to these high priority programs. Let's repeat that. Eliminating a tax cut for a tiny slice of Americans who don't even need it makes $1 trillion of the $1.2 trillion in proposed cuts unnecessary.

America is not a poor country, and the choice between ignoring our children's needs today and burdening them with untenable debt in the future is a false one. A budget is a list of a nation's priorities, and it's time we let Congress know that we prioritize our children's education, safety, health, nutrition and economic security over tax breaks for the wealthy. It's time we show Congress that we are educated, engaged, thinking adults who refuse to accept the false choice they are trying to hand us. It's time that Congress stopped treating us like toddlers.


• Deborah Bryan is the executive director of Action for Children North Carolina.