Okay. Enough people in Congress despise Obamacare (aka, the Affordable Care Act) enough that they’re willing to shut down the government and perhaps disrupt the national (and even world) financial system to try crippling its rollout. But Obamacare, unfortunately, isn’t the only policy target the fate of which has major public health implications. So-called “hard Right” Republicans seem insistent on dismantling what’s left of the economic and social safety net protecting society’s most vulnerable – the poor, disabled, children and elderly.
A key component of this (badly frayed) net is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), still commonly known as “food stamps.” House Republicans are demanding major cuts to SNAP as part of a general strategy of forcing reductions in federal expenditures. Advocates of SNAP cuts will point to the rapid increase in expenditures and invoke anecdotes of waste and fraud in the operation of the program. Regarding the spike in spending, the reason is evident – poverty rates are going up, making more people eligible for assistance. As for instances of waste and fraud – they are beyond question the exception, not the rule, and surely no justification for damaging reductions in spending.
Make no mistake about it – Cuts to SNAP will hit the growing number of the nation’s poor (nearly 50 million at this point) very, very hard, and will undermine the public’s health by depriving tens of millions (many of the them children and the elderly) of support for sound nutrition, and, it follows, good health. We should be expanding, not contracting, health services and supports for the poor and vulnerable, especially during a period of protracted economic downturn. It’s sound policy based on good science, and, in the long run, good economics.
Not to mention good morality. According the “Feeding America,” a national food bank organization, 20% of our children do not know where their next meal is coming from; cuts to SNAP will bump that number up significantly. Anyway you slice it, that is a moral outrage.
A new report by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine provides some welcome news on child abuse – over 20 years, awareness is up and the incidence of abuse is down.
But abuse – both physical and sexual – is only part of the big picture of child risk, and that picture is far from rosy. Neglect – highly correlated with poverty – continues at an undiminished rate, and reports of psychological and emotional abuse to state child protective agencies in fact are rising.
The best epidemiological evidence suggests that at least 1.25 million children (17.2 per 1000) suffer abuse in any given year, with several times that number at risk of abuse. Given the well-documented long-term, cumulative, and lasting damage inflicted on individuals, families, and communities, child maltreatment rates as one of our greatest public health issues.
Need more evidence that our politics have become dysfunctional in the extreme? Probably not. But here’s some more anyway – Budget cuts tied to sequestration (itself a sign of serious political dysfunction) are driving some of our best scientists out of the U.S. So says the chief of the National Institutes of Health, anyway.
Dr. Francis Collins has sounded the alarm, pointing to a recent study by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). Among the study findings: 80% of university-based scientists report more time writing grants than they did three years ago, with over 2/3 suffering federal funding cuts for their research. Universities don’t have the means to take up the slack, spelling disruption or elimination of research projects. More than half the scientists report, moreover, knowing colleagues who have been laid off. As a result, close to 20% of scientists are now thinking seriously about trying to move their work out of the U.S. to a country with more reliable support for research.
The sequester – there’s a mandated 5% cut to non-military spending – could suck up to $1 billion for research out of the federal budget. The damage will not be limited to sending some research colleagues abroad, but will carry forward in the form of fewer, smaller grants awarded and fewer students accepted to science doctoral programs.
If this seems like the intellectual equivalent as failing to repair our decaying physical infrastructure of roads and bridges, it is.
Dr. Collins isn’t afraid to tell it like it is to anyone willing to listen, and especially austerity-minded politicians - “If you want to convert this into real meaningful numbers, that means people are going to die of influenza five years from now because we don’t yet have the universal vaccine,” Dr. Collins said. “And God help us if we get a worldwide pandemic that emerges in the next five years, which takes a long time to prepare a vaccine for.”
Today’s Clarion-Ledger carries a Section B story titled “State’s Colleges Gaining Notice.” Nice notes from writer Dustin Barnes on a number of Mississippi’s public universities. Mississippi State ranks as a top research university, certainly the top banana in the state. Delta State garners kudos for leading “green” efforts to reduce energy consumption. Mississippi Valley is a super bargain and ranks high in graduate earnings. Ole Miss is among the “most literary” of universities in the nation, right up there with Smith College, Princeton, and Harvard. Little MUW, finally, is said to be one of the best colleges in the country to work for.
Okay, that’s five of eight publics enjoying at least a sliver of limelight. Not bad for the state; commissioner Bounds and the college board ought to be smiling today. But not so good if you’re Jackson State, Alcorn, or Southern Miss, and don’t seem to merit a mention. What are we, Mr. Barnes, the chopped liver of Mississippi higher ed? You’re a newsman; dig a little deeper, will you?
I just saw some new research work on the relation of poverty and health, but I won’t relate that here, now. Just assume for the moment that the connection is crystal clear. It would seem to follow, then, that if we (i.e. the USA) were serious, as we claim to be, about affecting health outcomes, we’d be a helluva lot more serious about addressing poverty than we appear to be – especially given that poverty has been on the rise for decades, and continues to climb.
Sadly, many of the same policymakers who stay in a constant lather over trying to roll back Obamacare (that would be a large number of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives) seem either oblivious to the long-term corrosive impacts of poverty, or, worse, intent on eroding the few social supports – food stamps, unemployment insurance, health care access – that mitigate those impacts.
Is “compassionate conservatism” so absolutely and completely dead – perhaps a relic of a time when politicians at least occasionally rose to the call of statesmanship and made efforts to solve problems of substance for the general welfare of the people?
If so, why? Can anyone in Washington really, with a straight face, embrace the tired canard that poverty is caused by “too much welfare” for “people who don’t want to work”? What’s next? Poor people seeking health care “really don’t want to be well”?