In the wake of the first government shutdown in nearly two decades, pundits clamor to provide commentary on both the causes and effects of the failure to pass a budget, funding nonessential government functions. Some argue that the shutdown is unremarkable; it has happened before and its effects are limited. As Sean Hannity claims, “We have had 17 government shutdowns…I am not afraid of a couple of weeks of the government being shut down.”
Yet, as Brad Plummer illustrates on the Washington Post Wonkblog, the hiatus of so-called nonessential government offices will affect the lives of American citizens more profoundly than Hannity’s remark portrays. Effects range from the mundane to the inconvenient: the suspension of the Panda Cam broadcast at the National Zoo, the blockade of national parks and monuments, and the closure of the U.S. Copyright Office until the end of the standoff.
Some Americans will experience the shutdown more acutely than others, especially government employees who will go without pay, veterans and disabled persons who will go without benefits, and cancer patients who will be denied access to critical services from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Still, there are some for whom the shutdown will have an almost immediate and deleterious effect: poor families and children.
According to USDA estimates, Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) benefits in most states will disappear after one week of government closure. According to Forbes, 8.9 million women, infants, and children risk having their necessary benefits slashed or frozen. While human interest stories about families and school children who cannot visit the Lincoln Memorial or the Statue of Liberty have taken center stage in public discourse about the shutdown, it is poor families who are positioned to bear the full weight of this latest round of Washington wrangling.
According to the Healthy NY Web site—the USDA website remains offline—WIC provides low-income pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children up to age five with supplemental nutrition, breastfeeding support, nutrition education, health checkups, and referrals for childcare. Struggling families require these vital services, which provide necessary nutrition during critical years in human development. Dr. Perri Klaas at the New York Times Healthblog exhorts, “Think for a moment of poverty as a disease, thwarting growth and development, robbing children of the healthy, happy futures they might otherwise expect.”
Poverty prevention in early childhood is crucial for healthy development. So why wasn’t WIC one of the programs so important to maintain continuity that the House leadership designated it for a separate vote? Why aren’t WIC beneficiaries—children whose livelihood and future depends on access to government-sponsored nutrition—the face of the government shutdown of 2013?
A deeper, and even more insidious, ideological battle concerning poverty looms behind the ideological fight over the Affordable Care Act. Over the last few years, the public battle over social protections and poverty programs has raged on both the federal and state levels. One such example is the ongoing and perpetual battle over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps) most recently the House resolution removed time waivers for the unemployed currently receiving food stamps. Various states have enacted drug-testing mandates for unemployment or criminalized homelessness.
All of these measures are ways of delineating the deserving from the undeserving poor. This cultural fixation has taken on new and disturbing turn in the wake of the shutdown. While several programs generally attacked for not properly winnowing out those supposedly undeserving of federal funding—recipients of unemployment insurance, SNAP, Medicaid—will not be affected by the current debate, WIC benefits will be affected, leaving the most vulnerable people in our society as collateral damage in this political showdown.
The rhetoric, proposed solutions and media framing of the shutdown reveals who is considered a legitimate victim of the shutdown and who is not. The primary difference between the children of WIC and the children of the NIH is the perception of poverty. Once again, those most impacted are those who are already on the margins of the public conversation. In his visit to Brazil, Pope Francis reminds us “The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: it is the culture of solidarity that does so, seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters.”
The names and faces of those whose lives are most affected by these proposed “compromises” of spending cuts are poor men, women, and children who rely on these social protections for basic human needs. And yet, they remain in the shadows. The discussion of poverty, which takes seriously the reality of poor persons, is taboo. Focus dwells on the question of the size of government and the middle class. The danger here is that in looking at the middle class without attention to poverty, millions more Americans find themselves at risk. And we as a country become the example of Pope Francis’s interdiction that “Solidarity, this word that strikes fear in the more developed world…They try not to say it. It’s almost a dirty word for them. But it is our word!”
Meghan J. Clark is an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at St. John’s University (NY)
Nichole M. Flores is an instructor of theology and religious studies at Saint Anselm College (NH)