Put children, families first in 'fiscal cliff' talks

OPINION - Coming out of this election, we should think about who we are as a nation and how to hold all of our elected officials accountable to children and families of all races...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

In his acceptance speech on Election Night, President Barack Obama said that “What makes America exceptional… [is] the belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.”

He’s right.  In America, we have done so much good for each other.

I think of the couple in Pierce County, Washington, who have two young sons. Their father was laid off from two jobs, an all too common story in an economy still recovering, or the mother in Scott County, Iowa, who unexpectedly got pregnant working twelve hour shifts,  and struggling to make ends meet. She became desperate when she did the math and realized that her hard earned dollars were not going to cover the bills for her and her child.

We all help these children and their families with a little extra food, healthy food, to make ends meet. So the Pierce County couple can still give their children milk to drink. Mothers, like the single mom in Scott County, learn how to breastfeed their babies, learn what foods are wholesome, and get healthy food, like whole wheat bread, eggs and milk to keep their bellies full and their bodies healthy. [Both these stories can be found here.]

We all helped out when these families and many like them needed help. I don’t know the race or ethnicity of these families. And I don’t care. I believe that no family in this country should go hungry or be unable to get healthy food.

Through programs like the Women Infant and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program known simply as WIC, we help women and their young children who are hungry with food, but we also help them learn about good nutrition, how to breast-feed and get lactation consulting support when their babies are born. It is a supplemental food and nutrition program for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women and for children under age five.

WIC, and many other programs, critical to our people’s ability to eat, have shelter and learn, are about to be mercilessly cut thanks to the “fiscal cliff,” we face on January 2, 2013. It isn’t so much a cliff as an ax enacted by Congress called the Budget and Control Act of 2011. It chops off discretionary spending to reduce federal spending by $821 billion over the next ten years. Don’t be fooled. “Discretionary spending “means programs like WIC.

The program will be cut by $543 million.  This means almost three quarters of a million women and children will lose a life line that has saved them from starvation and helped them learn to care for themselves. That’s the population size of Charlotte, NC. That is far too many people, particularly when we are talking about women and very young children.

Over 450,000 of these needy Americans are people of color, according a report soon to be released by the Center for Social Inclusion. In fact, over 60 percent of the women and children WIC helps to feed and support with good nutrition, are Latino and black. Together, we fed almost 9 million people a month in 2010. And while we will continue to feed families in need, the cuts will threaten the lives and health of far too many pregnant women and new mothers and their children. Just as we come together to feed and help those left hungry, homeless and without power after Hurricane Sandy, we come together to help those in need because jobs are scarce or who work long hours and still can’t make ends meet.

Throughout the recent Presidential election cycle, we only heard about the fiscal cliff in relationship to defense spending. This is a worthy topic, no doubt.  But with just a few short months away from the falling ax, in an economy recovering, but slower than any of us want, we might have expected a more vibrant discussion about feeding families, not just buying bombs. In an election where candidates debated whether or not a woman should be able to choose to carry a child to term or not, unless she is raped or her life is endanger, you might think we would be hearing more about whether our elected officials will fight to make sure that pregnant women, or families with young children, get the help they need to feed their families.

We should have heard more about food stamps too. A ripe campaign issue, since back in January, former candidate Newt Gingrich tried to turn “food stamp president” into an epithet, and Congress returned home in August without a finished Farm bill. The Farm Bill includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka Food Stamps.) The Senate version would cut the food to hungry families by $4.5 billion, while the House version would cut by $35 billion.

Everybody needs help when jobs are hard to find or the paycheck isn’t covering the rent. White Americans are the largest number of recipients of SNAP (33 percent), and over 20 percent of all black Americans and about 16 percent of all Latinos rely on the program trapped in lower wage jobs or more likely to be looking for work.

According to 2010 data, over 70 percent of hungry Americans who we help fed by SNAP are families with children.

Coming out of this election, we should think about who we are as a nation and how to hold all of our elected officials accountable to children and families of all races. Whomever it is, we must demand food for families. It’s the American thing to do.

Maya Wiley is the founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion.