fresh voices from the front lines of change







The supercommittee is down for the count, and everyone from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, and even Grover Norquist is credited with throwing the knockout punch. It’s tempting to do a victory dance, but we’d better make it a short one.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve earned it. As Van Jones wrote, it’s not often that progressives “battle the concentrated forces of corporations and their armies of lobbyists to a stalemate.” So go ahead and celebrate a job well done. But make it quick, because though we’ve just won this round, the bell signaling the start of the next will soon ring.

The so-called economic recovery hasn’t reached the vast majority of jobseekers and homeowners who have been battered by the financial collapse and its aftermath. And the bill that created the Super Committee mandated massive cuts to education, health care, environmental regulation, and job creation in 2013. So we still have some work to do.

In fact, the fights coming up are likely to be brutal. The Super Committee trigger does not identify where the domestic cuts are coming from. And conservatives are already trying to roll back the trigger’s cuts to the defense budget and replace them with deeper cuts to domestic programs. So we need to keep fighting if we want to protect the EPA, science, energy research and development, home weatherization, and other vital programs.

That next round is “sequestration” — across-the-board cuts that take now that the supercommittee has inevitably failed. But those cuts are not automatic, or even very clearly defined. In one corner are military cuts that Republicans will fight hard to take off the table, and in the other corner are the cuts in non-defense spending — that means cuts to programs that provide essential services to Americans who truly need them, but who don’t write big checks to congressional campaigns, don’t have a Super PAC, and thus have even less of a voice in Washington now than they did before Citizens United.

I mean low-income families and their children. According to Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, programs for low-income families make up about 2% of “non-defense discretionary spending,” but could likely be targeted with draconian cuts “on top on the caps already enacted” as Republicans and Democrats fight out the details of sequestration.

During my commute into work this morning, I finally read a Washington Monthly article by Benjamin J. Dueholm, that I’d filed away for later reading a few weeks ago. In “Taxing the Kindness of Strangers,” Dueholm recounts the experiences he and his wife had as middle class couple who become foster parents to children from low-income families — from dealing with the stigma of buying food with the food stamps their foster children qualified for (and spending their own money on what food stamps didn’t cover) to navigating their way through system of programs that are supposed to meet the children’s basic needs (sometimes only after the Dueholms put up a fight).

Dueholm wraps the supercommittee frame around his family’s story, and brings into focus sharp which programs are likely to be on the sequestration chopping block, and which aren’t. The difference was illustrated by Dueholms’s difficulty in getting Medicaid to pay for ear tubes for their foster daughter, compared to the ease of getting the same procedure done for their biological son.

We had the same procedure done for our son less than a year and a half earlier with much less drama. But his health care is secured by private insurance and subsidized by a huge income tax exclusion. Sophia’s health care will only become harder to secure as providers leave the field and state Medicaid programs face tightening budgets.

Both the subsidy for our son and the expenditure for our daughter expand the scope of the federal government, and both impact the deficit in the same way. Yet when the time came to strike a deal over taxes and spending in order to increase the debt ceiling in August, the expenditures that support the children of the poor were on the table while the expenditures that support the children of the middle class and wealthy, thanks to the unwavering insistence of Republican lawmakers, were not.

As the “super committee” goes to work, the same story is set to be repeated. The White House successfully insulated Medicaid from the “trigger” mechanism that will produce automatic cuts should the committee fail to reach an agreement. But in that scenario every other program for poor children will get hammered, from WIC to early childhood development assessment. At the same time, plummeting federal aid to the states will tempt state-level lawmakers to cut into their half of the Medicaid spending formula. Either way, the interests of poor children—and the tools that make modern foster parenting possible—are coming to a dangerous pass.

Despite their difficulties getting their daughter the services she both needed and had a right to, the Dueholms agree to take in two brothers for just ten days. They arrived with “fistfuls of prescription drugs, grocery bags full of clothes, state Medicaid cards, and a list of phone numbers.” The one-year-old required daily treatment sessions with a nebulizer that left him looking like a “tiny Darth Vater,” but still ended up with such severe conjunctivitis that “nurses practically wept to see him, oozing prodigiously from his nose and eyes and limp from low oxygen levels,” when the Dueholms rushed him to the doctor. The five-year-old’s teeth were in such a shocking state, that he had “enduring halitosis that no amount of brushing could conquer,” and vomited throughout most of his second day with the Dueholms. He “craved all the most sentimental books [the Dueholms] had about parental love.” After having the story “Snuggle Puppy” read to him three times, sat in bed reciting it to himself.

Foster parenting takes a heavy toll on the idealism that drives it. We worked ourselves up to do a good deed for these boys, but it could hardly have seemed like a mercy to them. They were relatively new to foster care and had already been through one failed placement. Ours was the fourth roof they’d slept under in six weeks. We were just another pair of adults with an expired futon mattress, mismatched sheets, and unknown motives. Foster children obviously have suspicions about adults. “My parents don’t love me,” the five-year-old confided to my wife one night, after a day of gamely spinning fantasies about all the things they do for him. “I’m sure they do love you,” she told him, “but they can’t take care of you right now.” It was true, but it was cold comfort to a small boy.

The brothers moved on. We don’t find out what happened to them, perhaps the Dueholms didn’t either. But a year later, Sofia is still with the Dueholm family, and thriving, thanks in no small part to all the support she and the Dueholms get through WIC, Medicaid, and a host of other services provided by the state — services that are likely to be targeted for major cuts.

It’s an irony of foster care in America that the only politician who has made this juggling act visible in recent years should be Michele Bachmann. The Minnesota congresswoman and Tea Party firebrand has often invoked her experience as a foster mother to twenty-three young women. She represents both the genuine evangelical zeal for at-risk kids that sustains the system and the hostility to social programs that threatens it. All of those girls were on Medicaid, which Bachmann voted to cut dramatically. The private virtue we claim to admire can’t escape its dependence on the public weal.

These days, when our kids instinctively comfort each other after a tumble at the town swimming pool, it’s easy enough to forget that our family is accidental and probably temporary. Parental affection can stretch itself farther than I could have imagined in those early days of round-the-clock shrieking. But we can never go long without realizing that Sophia’s difficult tendencies do not come from us, that she is likely to leave us someday, and that we are operating at the limits of our emotional, economic, and social capacity. Without a commitment by the state to cover the basic costs of her care, we would, like every other foster family, be asking ourselves daily whether we could keep doing it.

As social programs are unwound, foster parents watch our families being unwound with them. For most of us, our “altruistic motivations” always threaten to outstrip our resources. Foster parenting teaches us how to live as so many low-income families already live—check to check, coupon to coupon, appointment to appointment. The difference is that most foster parents hold middle-class passports, and they can cut short their sojourn among WIC recipients and Medicaid administrators at any time. No one knows what exactly will happen to Sophia and the nearly half-million kids in her situation if they exercise that privilege. If Republican lawmakers have their way, we may well find out.

We may. The latest front runner in the GOP presidential field, Newt Gingrich, has already given us a preview.

Sophia’s story is as heartwarming as the two brothers’ story is heartbreaking. Both represent the most vulnerable members of our society, for whom the social contract and the social programs it supports are sometimes the difference between having a home and not having one — and perhaps even the difference between life and death.

With long-term unemployment wiping out the middle class, leaving millions of Americans in a state of economic insecurity that’s just the next step before poverty, and millions more falling into the safety net that’s keeping them just this side of poverty, there are likely to be more and more children in situations like the Dueholms’s foster children. These kids’ parents have often have their hands full fighting their children’s basic needs. The voices that fight for their interests in Washington are up against corporations that not only have their own lobbyists, but practically own several members of Congress, who are eager to slice the safety net out from under low-income families and children in order to preserve tax cuts for true constituentsnot even the 1 percent, but the .1 percent.

The super commitee was “about as dumb an idea as Washington has come up with in my lifetime.” (I’m quoting Newt Gingrich here, who — like a stopped clock — is right once every 43,200 seconds.) Congress and the White House punted the tough decisions to a committee instead of doing their freakin’ jobs. Who didn’t know that would end up a dismal failure? Who isn’t even a little relieved that it did?

Progressives should savor the moment, and prepare for the next fight — the one we’ll fight on behalf of children like the Dueholms’s foster kids. We can’t afford to lose this one. Neither can they.

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