Three days ago, before House Republican leaders were forced to scuttle a vote yesterday on a $54 billion budget-cutting bill that would have scaled back Medicaid, food stamp and student loan programs, I stood in line at the Nashville airport, wondering why so few Americans seemed outraged by this threat to some of our nation's poorest children.
Just like that, a woman cooing at two infants distracted me.
The tousled-haired twins in a two-seater stroller are, their grandmother told me, "so different." The younger one is an Energizer Bunny-quick crawler; the older one barely scoots, but his rosy fingers "pick everything apart."
Grandma, it turned out, is from Louisiana. And though Katrina didn't directly touch her family, she "still can't believe that what happened there happened in America," she said. "I know the bridge those poor people were stuck on. . . ."
Her sharp blue eyes became slits.
"You don't think I'd smash in a grocery store window to get some water for these babies?" she asked.
Her passion for her grandsons made me wonder: Is it numbers -- which are as cold and bloodless as her twins are warm and alive -- that keep us from caring more about poor children?
Are they to blame for the yawns that greet the hair-raising words "13 million U.S. children live in poverty"? Do numbers explain why the sentence "More than 9 million U.S. children have no health insurance" elicits a stunned blink or a sharp inhalation, but then is forgotten?
Our responses to numbers reflect our experiences. We hear "nine," and some of us flash on our fourth-grade son's age, or the play we just saw with that title, or the number of times that 50 Cent got shot, the rapper-turned-actor repeatedly reminds us.
Who can experience "13 million"?
The thought of a sick child, at least, inspires feeling. Some people recall their terror at their young son's wails after a hard playground fall, their daughter's terrifying limpness during a fever. Like the Nashville grandma, they might have done anything to halt that one child's hurt.
But "9 million"?
It's a number. So are stunning census statistics that the number of children living in poverty grew by almost 13 percent over the past four years and that those living in extreme poverty -- annual income below $7,610 for a family of three -- increased by 20 percent. According to data from the National Center for Health Statistics, every 19 minutes a U.S.-born baby dies before his first birthday.
Such numbers give us a momentary jolt. Then we turn on "SportsCenter," answer e-mails. A number is a number. A child is a child.
Unless he's ours.
Many of us have gotten to where a youngster's welfare doesn't trouble us unless we've kissed, read to or held her. Anyone who has fleetingly experienced true hunger can't forget that panicked feeling -- yet we won't demand that Congress keep helping kids who experience it day after day.
The proposed budget cuts would eliminate some Medicaid protections instituted in the 1960s, when half of young military draftees were being turned away because of physical, mental and developmental conditions that basic health care might have prevented, says Children's Defense Fund Child Health Director Alison Buist.
Republican leaders had to delay the vote despite having made major concessions on oil and gas exploration and drilling. Moderates still opposed provisions that would have curbed vital social services. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the bill promoted "cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class and hurting those who need our help most."
Of course, for many people the phrase "needy Americans" conjures images of job-allergic welfare moms. In fact, 87 percent of uninsured children have at least one employed parent. "So you have lots of parents trying to do the right thing who can't get ahead," Buist says. "Their kid has an asthma attack, they take off work and they lose their job. . . . We think, 'I have a co-pay.' But we don't realize how poor is poor." According to the federal poverty level, that's $16,090 a year for a family of three -- "$309 a week to pay for food and rent and heat and transportation," Buist says. For a family living on that amount, "a $5 co-pay and a premium are a lot of money."
Not only were congressional Republicans proposing cuts to programs that help the helpless, but in the next few weeks they could give $70 billion in tax relief to the nation's wealthiest citizens -- which enrages CDF Chief Executive Marian Wright Edelman as much as it baffles her. "Who takes from the poor to give to the rich in times like these?" she asks.
It's obscene that this nation's 347 billionaires -- whose net worth exceeds $1 trillion and who received massive tax cuts in 2001, 2003 and last year -- could get additional tax cuts while some poor kids get less medical care. Yesterday, House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) suggested that GOP leaders would make more concessions, adding, "I think we'll have the votes next week."
Maybe not. Numbers are numbers. But when it comes to that child at risk, pretend that he or she is yours -- or mine, or the twins adored by that Nashville grandmother.
Pretend that the proposed budget cuts threatened the child whose peanut-butter-and-jelly lunch you daily slap together, and whose sleeping face fills your flung-open heart.
Think of that child. Think of those billionaires.
Then tell Congress whom you'd rather help.