By Marian Wright Edelman
Since the government was forced to shut down on October 1, one of the most common refrains has been that some members of Congress are acting like children—or, more accurately, worse than most children. Even 5-year-olds understand that quitting the game and taking the ball home because the other team won’t give you your way is wrong. Extremist Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives continue to hold funding for the federal government hostage for the second week in a row, opposing a clean extension of government funding without conditions. Their actions as they refuse to do their constitutionally mandated duty are harming the economy and countless real children and families across the country.
Fortunately, some of the programs families with children depend on aren’t affected by funding tied to the shutdown, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps). There are others, including many education programs, where funding has already been provided for the year. However, many other federal programs that help low income families meet every day needs have been forced to stop operating because of the shutdown, including some of the same programs already hit hard by sequestration cuts earlier this year. Children have only one childhood. Every day that children are being denied early education and food causes lasting damage to their chances of living to their full potential.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is without its regular funding due to the shutdown, leaving at risk nearly 9 million pregnant women, recent mothers, and their children under age five who rely on the program’s supplemental vouchers for healthy food, expensive infant formula, and other necessities. Fifty-three percent of all infants born in the U.S. are fed through the WIC program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture originally estimated that state funds and contingency funds would be enough to cover only a week of nutritional supports during the shutdown. Fortunately, the Ag Department this week transferred unspent funding from last year to states to avoid shutdowns through the month of October—but not beyond. Some states have already stopped applications for new benefits because they are unsure of what will happen next month.
Head Start serves more than 1 million poor children, who are particularly in need of early education programs to succeed and thrive. Twenty-three Head Start programs servicing nearly 19,000 students across 10 states and Puerto Rico did not have access to federal funding on October 1 because the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services could not process Head Start grants as a result of the shutdown. Head Start grantees are funded on a yearly basis, and for some that grant year begins on October 1. When these programs didn’t receive their annual grants as scheduled, they were forced to close their doors and furlough their workers unless they had alternative sources of revenue. At the end of the first week of the government shutdown, seven Head Start programs in six states (Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi) were closed, leaving 7,195 of our nation’s most vulnerable children without access to Head Start. These programs were able to reopen thanks to a private pledge of $10 million from John and Laura Arnold. Under sequestration, Head Start already had to cut 57,000 children from the program.
Funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) shouldn’t have been affected by the shutdown, but because the legislation reauthorizing it was delayed along with the spending bill, states are not receiving their October federal funds. Since TANF is funded through both federal and state funds, most states should have the flexibility to continue providing benefits, and the federal government has also let states use leftover funds from previous years. But at least one state—Arizona—stopped TANF payments starting October 3 to 5,200 families out of the Arizona TANF caseload of 16,300 families.
As many Americans have already learned, even life-saving research for children with serious medical needs has been affected. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that for every week the shutdown continues, 30 children—10 of whom have cancer—will not be able to begin their clinical trials.
States use the $1.7 billion Social Services Block Grant for child abuse and neglect services, child care, and other family services, but due to the shutdown, states are not receiving their October funds. This means some states may have to close down programs if they don’t have alternative funds they can use.
And children of families of furloughed employees may suffer if the furlough lasts too long. The federal government estimates that more than 800,000 workers are being furloughed, and some state and local government employees normally paid with federal funds are also being sent home. This comes on top of the furloughs that many federal employees have experienced over the past six months due to sequestration. If the shutdown lasts, furloughed employees may experience problems paying bills and providing for their families, especially if they are not provided retroactive pay once the shutdown ends.
To make all of this worse, a severe economic meltdown is predicted if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling in the next two weeks to pay the nation’s bills and obligations. Meanwhile some members of Congress continue to show worse “compromising” skills than spoiled toddlers. Enough is enough. Call or email your own representative and tell them they must act now to fully fund the federal government and raise the debt ceiling without any conditions. Tell them to stop the shutdown and prevent an economic meltdown for the sake of our children.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to http://www.childrensdefense.org.