Kentucky Tonight Reflection: Children and the Debt Ceiling Debate

My head is spinning after spending an hour yesterday evening on Kentucky Tonight, discussing the federal debt ceiling with three other panelists.  As usual, host Bill Goodman did his job masterfully, orchestrating discussions around tough topics in a low-keyed, thoughtful and open manner. (I wish we had more Bill Goodmans on the Sunday news shows and the nightly cable talk shows. Maybe thoughtfulness would replace rhetorical ideology!)

None of the conversation really surprised me. Sadly, I do understand the toxicity afflicting Washington a bit more after hearing some of my fellow panelists advocate for  an America where profits always trump people. I also walked away from the program set sensing the tensions between those in DC who want to obfuscate around their “ideal” versus those working to make a conscionable deal. As expected, the show covered a rash of topics, including expected talk about Social Security, entitlements, and taxes. The debt ceiling debate is an onion with layers upon layers to be sure.

But as complicated and complex as the federal debt ceiling issues may be, there is one thing that is clear – the futures of Kentucky’s and this nation’s children are on the line.

Let’s be clear on two big picture issues:

  • Actual spending on children has increased. That spending is almost all in mandatory spending as you would expect. In the tough economic times our families face, the dollars spent on programs such as SNAP and WIC have increased just as they are intended to do as “automatic stabilizers” within the tax and budget framework.
  • However, the percentage of the federal budget spent on children has declined to its current level of 7.5% of all federal spending.

Given how little that is spent on kids, it is ironic that there seems to be a penchant for balancing the federal budget on the backs of children and families. For example:

  • A  proposal is being advanced to cut WIC in a way that would slash participation in Kentucky. That would mean that some 4,500 children would be more likely to lack adequate food supply, more likely to be ill, and more likely to fall behind in school.
  • The  House plan that would reduce Pell Grants means that college becomes unattainable for 22,175 low-income aspiring Kentucky university students.
  • The Medicaid cuts being proposed means not only a loss of $400 million in  business activity but that 3,670 Kentucky moms and dads will lose      their jobs.
  • CASA  and the bulk of juvenile justice prevention programming are even more in  jeopardy. In fact, the federal support for juvenile justice programs is on the chopping block for 50% of its funding. The proponents of these cuts miss the point that those cuts build a pipeline to adult prison for the juveniles while presenting a real threat to community safety.

Need I go on? The good news is that the public gets it even if Washington politicians don’t. In a series of First Focus polling, Americans stand up for children. 91% label K-12 education as a priority; 88% cite child nutritional programs as a priority; and, CHIP, Head Start, and Pell Grants all garner support in the mid-80s as well.

According to that same First Focus polling, for the first time in history, most Kentuckians do not believe that their children will have the same opportunities they had to lead a happy, healthy and prosperous life. The resolution over the debt ceiling will be a telling sign as to whether that dismal prediction becomes a reality or whether we can re-claim our heritage of growing the American Dream for that next generation.

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