By Marian Wright Edelman
“You promised.” Children learn the value and power of those words very early on as they begin to develop a sense of morality and trust. A preschooler will show deep outrage when an adult promise isn’t kept. The Continuing Resolution that ended this week’s government shutdown relied on a series of uncertain promises about meeting children’s needs and ensuring their futures. Congress did keep one very critical promise by finally passing a long overdue extension of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), giving new hope to families after 114 days of partisan politicking with the lives and health of the 8.9 million children who benefit from CHIP’s high-quality, child-appropriate affordable health coverage. This will help ensure stability for CHIP, and parents of children who are sick or suffering from disabilities who rely on this crucial program can now breathe a sigh of relief. However, Congress should continue to do the right thing for children and extend CHIP for an additional four years, which according to the Congressional Budget Office would help children while saving $6 billion – an amount that could be used to fund other children’s priorities. In the meantime millions of other children are still waiting on Congress’s promises.
At the front of the line are the nearly 800,000 Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to this country by their parents as children and granted protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) which President Trump has set to end on March 5th. Enormous pressures from Congress’s failure to act on DACA continue to grow. These young people, who in some cases now have their own children, have passed background checks, gone to school, met other requirements and contribute to their communities every day through work, study, and service but continue to be threatened with deportation and a return to countries they don’t know at all. One young man who came to America at age five and didn’t learn he was undocumented until he was 14 and tried to apply for a work permit says, “It was very hard dealing with that because I always saw myself to be an American…It killed me inside.” He excelled in school and wants to become a lawyer or politician to help others and when DACA passed it was a dream come true. “I felt happy…I felt like I was finally being accepted.” Now, without a work permit and DACA’s other protections, his entire bright future would be dimmed in an instant: “For me personally, my voice would be taken away. My dreams would be shattered.” The DACA protections must be preserved and extended to others along with a path to citizenship and without other provisions harmful to immigrants. Each day Congress fails to act an average of 122 additional DACA recipients lose protections and starting March 5th 1,000 Dreamers will lose protection every day.
Young children and their families who benefit from the Maternal and Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV) and Community Health Center Program also are still waiting for Congress to extend funding for their critical services. Pregnant women and children under five benefit from MIECHV in every state and territory as the program helps improve maternal and newborn health, school readiness, and family economic self-sufficiency and helps reduce child abuse and neglect, crime, and domestic violence. One in 10 children use Community Health Centers (CHCs) for care and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has projected that loss of funding for CHCs would result in closing 2,800 health centers, eliminating more than 50,000 jobs, and more than 9 million patients losing access to care. This would even threaten the good news of stabilizing CHIP. For example, the Mississippi Primary Health Care Association, which oversees community health centers that serve nearly 300,000 Mississippians, reports one in every 14 children who receive CHIP in Mississippi gets their care in one of Mississippi’s CHCs. By continuing funding for CHIP, but not for the Community Health Center Fund, parents have CHIP for their children but if CHCs close they will no longer have access to the exams, eyeglasses, pediatric dental services and other care their children need. Many centers already have a hiring freeze due to anticipated funding shortages, a large setback for Mississippi, which already ranks #1 nationally in physician shortages.
Congress also has not yet committed to long-term funding needs for addressing the opioid crisis and other critical measures affecting child and family health. And children in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands still suffering from the horrific effects of devastating hurricanes are desperately waiting for more emergency funding, especially in the many homes and communities in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands still without electricity or water. As always, such omissions in funding are not a question of resources but priorities and common decency of some of our Members of Congress. Congress managed to make room in the Continuing Resolution that passed earlier this week to delay a trio of health-related taxes without finding a way to pay for them, benefitting wealthy corporations and individuals at a cost to the Treasury of about $31 billion over the next few years. But it failed to make other crucial cost-effective health and life saving investments in children and young adults. We must insist on different Congressional priorities.
While many of these children’s priorities remain on the Congressional agenda, opportunities for timely action are limited. Children’s futures and well-being will remain at risk until definitive action is taken. Legislative leaders made a series of promises to end the government shutdown and fund the government through February 8th and the clock is ticking. Millions of children and young adults are depending on adults who will stand up and raise a ruckus for them and remind Members of Congress and the President over and over again: you promised.
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 www.childrensdefense.org.