Screw the Children

Budgets are the guts of government. That's where you find the answer to the first of the three important questions about who runs a society: Who's getting screwed? Who's doing the screwing? And what the hell will they do to us next?

There was a time when reporters actually read budgets to find out what was going on, but the things are so humongous these days, we've given up on that. Consequently, there's usually a bit of a pause after a budget comes out, while we wait to hear from the various special interest groups that study their own section of a budget in minute detail. Then, the screaming from injured parties commences, and the press presumably sits up and takes note of who's screaming loudest.

With President Bush's proposed budget, may it die in committee, no pause is necessary. Read any overview of the proposal, and you can see exactly who's getting screwed: children.

Good Lord, what a nasty document. The cuts are in health care, childcare, Head Start, nutrition programs, food stamps and foster care. Because budgets are such abstract things – add a little here, cut some there, all produced by the Department of Great Big Numbers – it's hard to see what they actually mean to real people's lives.

In fact, that's something I've long noticed about George W. Bush: He really doesn't see any connection between government programs and helping people. Promoting the general welfare, one of the six reasons the Constitution gives for having a government in the first place, is not high on his list. I refer you back to his immortal statement while governor: "No children are going to go hungry in this state. You'd think the governor would have heard if there are pockets of hunger in Texas." He'd been governor for five years at the time.

What this budget means, quite literally, is that more kids will be hungry and malnourished. More kids who get sick will be unable to see a doctor, more kids with diseases will go undiagnosed until they get so sick they have to be carried to the emergency room. More kids who need glasses or hearing aids won't get them, causing them to fall behind in school. More kids will show up to start school without being in the least prepared, and they will remain behind for the rest of their days. Less money for childcare means more kids left alone or in unsafe places with irresponsible or incapable people while their parents work. More kids who are being severely abused will go unnoticed, and fewer of them will find safe foster homes.

I always thought House Majority Leader Tom DeLay should be interested in that last item – he had three foster children, now in their 20s, so he must have some interest in the problem. During his 20 years in Congress, between 3,000 and 4,000 Texas children have died from abuse.

Of course, that's because Texas has such a lousy child "protection" system. We're quite famous for being "low tax, low service." Our abuse-prevention workers carry 74 cases each, the highest in the nation (to meet national accreditation standards, the monthly investigative caseload should be 12 to 15), and cutting the federal foster care budget doesn't help any. Nationwide, about 6,000 kids die every year from child abuse, murder and suicide.

Every now and again, a gross case, like the recently discovered Florida couple who starved and tortured five of their seven children, gets some public attention. (Boy, that was a beauty. The kids were kept in chains in a closet and had their toenails pulled out with pliers, and the 14-year-old twins weighed 36 and 38 pounds.) But it's not enough attention, of course, for any God-fearing, Christian Republican to ever consider voting for taxes (gasp, horrors) to do something about it.

In Texas, whenever there's a budget crunch, the first thing we do is hurt the children – last legislative session, we actually turned down federal money for children's health insurance, leaving almost 170,000 Texas children uninsured, just so the state wouldn't have to put up the matching funds, $1 for every $2.60 from the feds. How proud we are to see this fine Texas tradition being exported to Washington by our former governor.

What's really sad is that all this damage is being done to real, living children – not clumps of cells in a petri dish – to save what is, in Washington terms, pennies. Pitifully small sums.

Nothing compared to the $9.9 billion being squandered on the missile defense boondoggle this year. (Did you notice that the system flunked yet another test this week, at a cost of another $85 million?) Nothing compared to the two tax breaks in the budget that benefit ONLY the really, really rich – regular folks this time will not even get that little, tiny slice that went to the middle class in the first Bush tax cuts.

But don't get me started.

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