It is fitting that House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan's budget and The Hunger Games were both released in the same week. Both envision a society in which children must truly fight for their very survival.
But it would be difficult for even Hollywood to overdramatize the degree to which children in America today are already at risk. More than 20 percent now live below the poverty line and of the 46 million Americans on food stamps, which the Ryan budget proposes to cut by $134 billion over the next decade, nearly half are children.
Among children of color the numbers are even worse. Black children are three times as likely to be poor as white children and are nearly four times as likely to live in extreme poverty, which is below half the poverty level.
The coming battle over how to cut what is left of the safety net is revealing in four ways:
- It shows just how much the dominance of partisan divisiveness has left Washington out of touch with the needs of ordinary Americans struggling to feed, educate and provide health care for their kids. The Ryan budget gets 62% of its cuts from programs that are vital safety nets for low income families.
- It is ideological more than fact based as evidenced by its targeting of programs that work, not those that don't. In 2010 for example, food stamps kept 1.3 million children from falling into poverty, more than any other program. The best proof point of all may be that in a year in which child poverty rates went up, child hunger actually went down.
- Rather than courageously making tough choices, it takes the easy way out by targeting those who are most vulnerable and voiceless. Children don't belong to advocacy organizations, don't make campaign contributions, and don't have PACs or lobbyists. Special interest greed trumps a child's need every time. Political leaders ought to help give voice to those who aren't able to represent themselves, as well as those with the resources to do so.
- Like much of today's legislation, the proposed budget cuts fly in the face of science. Lack of proper nourishment and stimulation not only stunts early child development but actually physically changes the architecture of the developing brain. We now know that hungry children are being disabled and damaged in ways that are very specific and measurable, but also avoidable. The current political debate lags far behind current knowledge, with potentially disastrous consequences.
If Washington were able to think beyond the next election it would heed a report by the Council on Foreign Relations that also made news last week. It warned that America's national security and economic prosperity are at risk if we don't recognize that "the dominant power of the 21st century will depend on human capital and that the failure to produce that capital will undermine American security." Any discussion of America's dependence on human capital must include a discussion of whether our school children are fed, fit and ready to learn.
The National Governors Association -- the collective voice of our nation's governors -- reinforced that message when it recently announced that child nutrition would be one of its three policy priorities for the next two years. Many of these forward-thinking governors have already embraced strategic "No Kid Hungry" partnerships to increase enrollment in school breakfast and other programs that ensure our children the nutritional basics.
The promise of a safety net implies catching those who fall. The Ryan budget cuts a hole in that net. That wouldn't be a movie most Americans want to see.
Bill Shore is founder and CEO of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit focused on ending childhood hunger in the U.S.