Nancy Amidei was in the hearing room that day in July of 1967 when a panel of six medical doctors told a Senate subcommittee that children were starving in America. The physicians had visited counties in Mississippi and came back to say: "We saw children whose nutritional and medical condition can only be described as shocking -- evento a group of physicians whose work involves daily confrontation with disease and suffering."
Just 15 years ago, the physicians declared: "It is unbelievable to us that a nation as rich as ours, with all its technological and scientific resources, has to permit thousands and thousands of children to go hungry, go sick, and die grim and premature deaths." It was unbelievable then, and Congress did something about it. It extended subsidized food programs for school children and developed the Women, Infant and Children program to help pregnant and nursing women and young children.
The programs worked; we are not hearing about starving children in the Mississippi Delta now. But the Reagan administration has targeted these programs for cutbacks and on Wednesday, witness after witness appeared before a congressional subcommittee to try to rescue America's invisible children from the administration. These are not programs fraught with waste, fraud and abuse, the witnesses told the subcommittee. In the long run they not only save lives, they save money.
And while the witnesses were able to make their case in terms of sound fiscal policy--namely that short-term cuts in medical and nutritional programs would end up increasing budget costs for medical care of sickly people--they also made their case in terms that have been lost on this administration. They spoke of values. They raised the question of what kind of country we want ours to be. As comedian Bill Cosby put it, there's the attitude that "some of you will just have to die, some of you will just have to suffer. . . . I don't think this is what America is supposed to be about."
Nancy Amidei is now executive director of the Food Research and Action Center. In the late '60s and early '70s she was on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. "We went into areas most politicians never go into. We saw people literally with no food, no health care." As a result of the extended food programs, she said, "gradually we saw a change. . . . The improvement was visible and palpable everywhere we went."
WIC provides prenatal care and nutrition to high-risk mothers and nutritional supplements such as milk and juice to children who otherwise would be undernourished, to babies whose mothers used to give them sugar water to keep them from crying from hunger. The goal was to reduce the incidence of low-birthweight babies, retardation, deformities and infant mortality. It is a program that a Harvard study found capable of saving $3 in health care costs for every $1 spent on preventive nutrition.
C arol Bellamy, president of the New York City Council, testified that there are 300,000 children and pregnant and nursing mothers in New York City who are potentially eligible for WIC. "Budget restrictions have already limited our ability to provide food supplements for two-thirds of this group and, if the administration prevails, we will lose another $15 million and 33,000 fewer people will be served."
"More than 14,000 people in my community are going to lose those scarce national resources called food, milk and orange juice," testified Barbara Mikulski, the Democratic congresswoman from Baltimore. "Over 3,000 children in Baltimore won't be immunized," and will run the risk of polio and rubella. And she accused her colleagues of a "basic hypocrisy," when they pose with the poster child for the newsletters that go home and then vote against programs that might prevent children from being born crippled.
Rep. James Scheuer (D-N.Y.) tried to get Mikulski to stick to the cost-effectiveness arguments, but she had more to say than that. She had something to say about the real world and something to say about what was morally right. She had something to say about real dangers and imagined dangers, about responsible public policy versus irresponsible rhetoric.
"When they get ready to send helicopters to El Salvador they talk about saving the country from communism," said Mikulski. "I want them to start talking about saving the country from birth defects. I'm talking about children in my district who are more likely to die of birth defects than from some communist who's going to come up the Chesapeake Bay."