House Budget Plan Would Have More Kids Sliding Into the Child Welfare System
Last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan laid out the House's plan for spending in Fiscal Year 2012 - calling it a "Path to Prosperity" and "Restoring America's Promise." He speaks of a choice between two futures, but the choices he proposes are the wrong ones if he wants to keep the nation's commitment to our most vulnerable children, to restore America's promise and provide them with a pathway to prosperity.
Ryan's plan would slash spending on health care and nutrition assistance for low-income people by block granting Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It would target low-income housing assistance for cuts. It would also decrease Pell grant aid and put college out of reach of many low-income students, and it would cut workforce development programs for those who need to gain the skills to earn a living wage.
It would do all of these things in the name of protecting future generations. But for all the rhetoric about protecting future generations, leaving today's vulnerable children out of the conversation is worrisomely short-sighted.
There are more than 14 million children living in poverty. That's 1 in 5 children in the United States. More than 6 million children live in extreme poverty. Instead of creating a budget that helps grow the middle class, the House's proposal would have us balance the budget on the backs of low-income families. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly two-thirds of proposed cuts are to programs that help low-income people.
Cutting the very programs and supports that help families at a time when so many are still reeling from the recent recession will exacerbate poverty. It would also likely push more children and their families into the child welfare system.
Poverty/socioeconomic status is the single best predictor of child abuse and neglect. This is not because most poor parents mistreat their children. Indeed they do not! However, the link between maltreatment and poverty is undeniable. There are several possible explanations for this link.
First, poverty may limit the resources parents have to care for their children. Consider the parents who lost their job in this last recession and as a result lost their housing and are now living in their car. A child welfare worker confronted with this family is faced with a Sophie's choice - should she leave the children with the parents who love them and risk harm from winter's cold or should she rip these children from all they know and place them in foster care? If housing assistance is inadequate, the child welfare worker may have no other choices.
A second explanation for the link between poverty and maltreatment is that the stress of poverty, particularly increased hardships say from losing a job, may increase stress to the point that a parent snaps when they otherwise would not. Recent unpublished analysis by researchers at Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Medical Center and Ohio State University found a strong correlation between increased significant unemployment and increases in confirmed maltreatment one year later. Consider here the father who has lost his job and snaps in a fit of frustration and shakes his infant or toddler causing serious injury or death. Press accounts report that several children's hospitals have seen marked increases in shaken baby syndrome and even injuries to toddlers from shaking during these last difficult years. If unemployment assistance and other economic supports are not available to these families in crisis, the stress will remain high. In addition, we need to ensure that there are adequate sources of respite care, counseling and mental health services to help families cope with the stress before the impact on children is too great.
A third explanation for the link between poverty and maltreatment is that a common underlying challenge prevents parents from both adequately caring for their children and holding down a job. Think here of the mother who was abused as a child or the father returning from Afghanistan who suffer Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. These parents need adequate health and mental health treatment and, if they have tried to self medicate with alcohol or drugs, adequate substance abuse treatment.
If our choices now are to slash funding for housing and food assistance, health and mental health care, substance abuse treatment and the like, we will likely end up with more children and families landing on the door step of the child welfare system . Such pain and suffering is unnecessary and unfair from a moral standpoint. It is also foolish from a fiscal standpoint.
According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who experience abuse and neglect as children are more likely to face myriad lifelong challenges. As adults, they are more likely to experience poverty, homelessness, a host of serious medical conditions and to be involved with the criminal justice system. Those challenges result in lost productivity and cost society in both direct and indirect costs. Prevent Child Abuse America commissioned an economic analysis of these costs several years ago and found that we are spending more than $100 billion each year as a result of abuse and neglect. If we want to look for savings at the same time as we create paths to prosperity and restore America's promise for children now and into the future, we need to make the right choices.
Representative Ryan is right to consider the future in today's budget. He is right to say budgets are about choices. But slashing spending for critical programs that create opportunity and promote healthy, thriving families is the wrong choice. Lawmakers should take care to ensure these programs and vulnerable children are provided for. The consequences of short-changing today's children and families are not in the interest of future generations.