People in poverty always dangle from a financial cliff, but this March 1st, Republicans have maneuvered and manipulated the political landscape to set up sequestration, and the people who will be harmed most disastrously will be the poor. If the Democrats and Republicans had been able to reach a reasonable agreement to stave off automatic cuts, over a million jobs would not be predicted to be lost, and millions would not suffer. A snapshot of some of the effects includes:
- Two million people will lose their SNAP (food stamp) benefits and another 44 million will see them cut
- Two hundred thousand children will lose school lunches
- $1.7 billion dollars per year will no longer go to child welfare services that address child abuse prevention
- Over half a million women and children will no longer receive WIC benefits (Women, Infants, Children) which provide milk, eggs, cereal, fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods to low-income families. About 1,600 will also be cut as a result
- Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP) is slated for dramatic cuts
- Twenty-five thousand children will no longer receive child care services
- Community health care centers serving the poor will lose $55 million in funding
- Over 7,000 special education teachers will be laid off
- Seventy thousand children will no longer be able to attend Head Start, and 10,000 Head Start teachers will be laid off
- Title I education funds will be cut resulting in the loss of funding for almost 1.2 million disadvantaged students, including another 16,000 teachers and staff laid off
- Rental assistance to 125,000 families in the very deepest poverty levels will be cut putting them at high risk for homelessness
- More than 100,000 formerly homeless people will be basically put back on the streets as the programs that serve them are cut
- People receiving unemployment benefits will see their benefits cut by 9.4% which translates into a loss of more than $400
- Almost 375,000 adults and children with serious mental illnesses will see their services cut
- The Indian Health Service will be able to provide 804,000 fewer outpatient visits and 3,000 fewer inpatient visits, and $130 million more will be cut from Tribal services ranging from social services to public education
- 734,000 low-income families will no longer receive assistance with utilities
These are just numbers on a page to Republicans. They have proven time and again their heartlessness. To me, they are a wrenching punch to the gut and a flashback to a scarier time of vulnerability.
In the 1980s, I was abnormally politically aware for a teenager. I held my breath with each proposal Ronald Reagan made to cut welfare and programs to the poor, because my family relied on every single one of them. For us, it started in 1980 when both my parents became unemployed in the recession that hit the Midwest particularly hard. It didn’t help that my mother and father both had serious mental illnesses, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, respectively. After losing custody of their children to foster care in 1981, because of living in an unheated farmhouse (it was 32 degrees Fahrenheit inside when the State took the temperature) and having very little food, my parents ending up divorcing. They had to. Reagan’s changes to welfare had resulted in the elimination of Aid to Dependent Children-Unemployed Parents (which allowed AFDC to go to two-parent families), so in order to receive government help, my mother needed to be single. At that point, child welfare workers were able to reunite my mother with her children setting her up in Section 8 housing, complete with AFDC, food stamps, and Medicaid. Our family of six received $460 in cash and $242 in food stamps each month.
Unfortunately, my mother’s mental illness got the better of her, and soon she believed the management of the government housing project was out to get her, because she kept failing the monthly inspections. She was written up for storing pots and pans in the oven, for example. She moved us into a rental home that soon took more of our income than we could afford. We were homeless quite quickly. We utilized homeless services at that point, and we finally were able to relocate into a rundown rental home in a dilapidated neighborhood. Rent took almost all of our monthly check because we received no rental assistance (only about 12.5% of poor families receive rental assistance). Food stamps usually lasted about two and half weeks. We had two children under five, so my mother was able to receive WIC, and those food items were coveted. After that, we relied on food banks, the Salvation Army and other churches for hot meals, free school lunches (free school breakfasts didn’t yet exist), and going hungry. One of the things that made food stamps dwindle faster was the practice of making change. Since we ran out of cash for things like shampoo, soap, or laundry detergent, our mother would send us kids one by one into the store to buy things that came as close to $1.01 as possible. This allowed us to receive 99 cents change. Afterwards, she would pool the change and go in and buy the cash-only items we needed. I can only guess how poor people today afford household goods with SNAP EBT cards that don’t allow them this kind of leeway.
Within a few years, because it takes that long, my mother applied for, and was accepted to, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for her mental illness. Nevertheless, her children continued to receive AFDC. My mother went on to receive extensive services through the state’s programs for people with serious mental illness. When we were sick, we went to the People’s Clinic; it was a community health center in our neighborhood. They took Medicaid. Unfortunately, I believe one doctor was just working there to get his student loans forgiven, because I clearly remember his snide remark to my mother about how poor people shouldn’t be getting health care on the taxpayer dime. Needless to say, his heart wasn’t in his work.
As it happens, I, my brothers, and my sister all went through Head Start. We also participated in the TRiO programs, specifically Upward Bound, which works to get low-income students through high school and geared toward college. We all eventually graduated high school, and three of us went to college. We were assisted with student loans and Pell Grants. One joined the military and served in Afghanistan.
We were children who didn’t ask to be born to disabled parents. We definitely didn’t ask to grow up in poverty. We are all grateful for the extensive services and help we received. As I look at the list of services that face dramatic cuts in just a matter of days, it takes my breath away. What would we have done? Where would we have gone? I know that, unfortunately, the State would have had to take us back into custody as we would have lost housing, sources of food, and we would have ended up back in foster care. Devastated, my chronically suicidal mother, potentially cut off from mental health services as well, would have probably had her life in jeopardy. The educational programs that resulted in all of the children in my family becoming productive members of society, instead of criminal or poverty-stricken, would be inaccessible. To know that this is the fate of millions of other children and vulnerable adults at the hands of Republicans is infuriating. As usual it will be up to the Democrats and President Obama to somehow save the day.
Deborah is a former social work professor who taught social policy, mental health policy, and human diversity. Proud to be called liberal, she happily pays her taxes after being raised in a home that needed long-term welfare. Contrary to the opinion of many, she is living proof that government investment in children leads them out of poverty having received services from Head Start to Pell Grants. Deborah works with low-income, first generation, and disabled college students who are at high-risk for dropping out of college in a program designed to help them graduate. She lives with her husband, stepson, and an aging cat.