by Karen Whitacre
“Do most of you want to be poor, or do you want to be rich?” That is a question U.S. Representative for Virginia’s 7th District, Dave Brat asked a crowd of constituents at his town hall meeting in Blackstone, Virginia on Tuesday, February 21, 2017. Any reasonable person would give the latter answer, because who would willingly want to struggle financially? The flippant manner in which Rep. Brat asked this question deeply disturbed me, as if the transition from being poor to being rich could be as easily and quickly accomplished as turning on a light switch. It disturbed me because I have been there.
Twelve years ago, my husband and I were in our first year of marriage and we had just had our first beloved son. I worked for an arts education non-profit in a low-income section in North Philadelphia. The pay was meager (as is the accepted case with many grassroots non-profit agencies) and our medical benefits required high employee premium contributions and high co-pays. However, I was young and healthy and strongly believed in the non-profit’s mission of providing arts education programming to low-income children and working to beautify blighted sections of the neighborhood with community partners. My husband was finishing a degree at the Academy of Fine Arts, selling his artwork, and working a part-time job.
Despite our lack of income, we were both engaged in professions we were dedicated to and we were able to provide everything our son needed and then some. However, I would be remiss if I did not disclose that we received help in the form of federally funded safety-net programs. We qualified for WIC and I applied for CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) for our son after his newborn coverage through my personal insurance expired. Our combined income was so low that our son was rejected by CHIP and I had to reapply for Medicaid for him. So, I put him on my insurance and received wonderful care until we were approved for Medicaid. I transitioned him to that plan, but I wasn’t very happy with the coverage. I lived in a large city, but my pediatrician and many other doctors I called did not accept Medicaid coverage. I knew I had to make a change, but we could not afford to put my son back on my health insurance.
Having a child is expensive. There are so many things you need for the child and there are so many factors to consider. We didn’t realize how expensive it was going to be until we were in that position. I had six-weeks of paid parental leave through my employer and then had to return to work. The weekly expense of quality childcare was astounding and ate up 20% of our combined income. Without the support of the WIC and Medicaid programs, I know that we would not have been able to provide for our son in the way we wanted. The expenses related to having a child and the desire to be in a position to provide my child with the very best I could give him, compelled me to find another job. I found a purposeful job at a local university that paid a comfortable salary and provided my family and me with excellent health benefits.
I don’t feel a sense of shame about having utilized those safety net programs. It was a temporary circumstance and I was, and still am, thankful that those programs were in place to help my family during a time of temporary need. I don’t object to paying taxes to help support these safety net programs or paying to guarantee the provision of healthcare for all Americans. I believe that we have an obligation to take care of each other, not just as family members and friends, but also as fellow human beings. That is why I was horrified when reviewing House Resolutions that have been sponsored or co-sponsored by Rep. Dave Brat. It is clear that there is a war being waged on the poor and working class families of the United States.
H.R. 352, for instance, proposes to change federal requirements for CHIP and Medicaid by replacing federal funding with block grants to the states. These block grants will most certainly have caps. The caps will limit the number of children, youth, and adults that are eligible for coverage. By turning these programs over to the states through the provision of block grants to run these programs, the federal government will save an enormous amount of money, but at what cost? Our most vulnerable populations will suffer: children, seniors, and the disabled will receive a reduction in coverage. Recipients of these programs will be the ones who get hurt. Block grants and per capita caps (a limit on the amount of money to be spent on each recipient) will result in cuts to the CHIP and Medicaid Programs. The income requirements in order to qualify will most likely drop thereby excluding people from being able to obtain coverage. It will also limit the amount of money to be spent on each patient receiving coverage through these programs. Americans with the least amount of resources, those that live in poverty will be the ones who lose, so as to enable the Federal Government to cut costs.
What about health care coverage for the working poor? H.R. 175 will authorize the repeal of the Affordable Care Act that insures upwards of 20 million Americans. As it stands now, the system is set up to ensure that low- and middle-income Americans can afford the costs of their premiums. As of this moment, there is no replacement plan being put forward by the Republicans. My family, along with millions of Americans, has been left in the dark in regard to the future of our health care coverage.
My family is currently insured through the Affordable Care Act. We pay full-price with no subsidies for a plan that we have found to be very effective, high-quality, and accepted at every provider we have encountered. Our premium went up about 13% in 2017 and I have to admit, I would have preferred that the premium remained more stable. However, if we had bought our insurance outside of the ACA (which I investigated,) we could have been denied coverage due to a preexisting condition and we would not have received the comprehensive coverage mandated by the ACA. I will gladly pay our increased premium because of the ten essential health benefits that are included in the ACA, including: mental health and substance use disorder services, behavioral health treatment, counseling, and psychotherapy; as well as, services and devices to help one recover if injured, or have a disability or chronic condition physical and occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, psychiatric rehabilitation, among others. I will gladly pay the increased premium if it means that our contribution helps to ensure other Americans have health care and that their health care coverage will take care of whatever medical needs may arise for them, even if I do not have those needs myself.
Instead of addressing the inflated prices charged by health insurance and pharmaceutical companies or the outrageous cost of healthcare in general, instead of amending the ACA; Rep. Dave Brat and his Republican colleagues have made their intention to repeal the ACA very clear. As of now, they have no concrete plans to share with the public, yet wonder why people are panicking at town hall meetings. They talk about the importance of letting the free-market economy regulate the price of health insurance, but the simple laws of supply and demand and letting competition drive prices down should not come into play when addressing basic human needs. Utilities are regulated and sometimes subsidized because electricity, gas heat, and water are considered basic human needs. Why wouldn’t the same logic be applied to healthcare?
Rep. Brat and other Republicans do not view high-quality, comprehensive health care as a right or a need, but as a privilege and a luxury for those who can afford it. Though a definitive replacement plan has not been decided on and shared with the American public, Rep. Brat went ahead and proposed (through H.R. 247) that individuals be able to increase the amount of money they can put in an untaxed Health Savings Accounts to $9000 per year ($18,000 in the case of a joint return.) That might be a solution for middle and high income individuals and families who will most assuredly already have health insurance plans provided by their employers or that have been purchased independently. It is not a viable solution for participants in the ACA that are only able to afford to pay for coverage because of the income-based subsidies that have been made available to them. Just forget about those that are currently receiving Medicaid.
That’s not the only House Resolution that scares me. H.R. 610 is the stuff of nightmares. It is the kind of bill that purports to give children and families more “choices”, but what it really does is abandon them. H.R. 610 will distribute federal funds for elementary and secondary education in the form of vouchers for eligible students to be paid out by the states to families regardless of their income level. If this program was being designed to provide school choice to children and youth in low-income regions that do not have access to quality public schools, or if there were income considerations, transportation provisions, and meal provisions to allow eligible students to attend private schools built into it; this would be an admirable bill. But, it doesn’t. There are no income requirements built into the bill and there are no requirements for school transportation, supplies, or meals to be covered by the states. This bill will benefit wealthier families. It will allow them to receive public school funds to send their children to private schools. Families that are in the position to provide a child’s transportation, supplies, and meals will be able to siphon money from public school systems to send their children to private schools.
Voucher programs have not been shown to be an evidence-based model worthy of replication; voucher programs have not been proven to improve academic outcomes. Furthermore, private schools that receive no federal funds are not accountable to state and/or federal academic standards. Neither the students’ proficiency or growth is measured on an annual basis and the curriculum is not required to meet state standards.
In addition, H.R. 610 deliberately reduces the nutrition standards of the national school lunch and breakfast program. That program currently increases the availability of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low or fat free milk, reduces the sodium levels, saturated fat, and trans fats in school meals and meet the children’s nutritional needs within their caloric requirements. I spent six years working for the SNAP-Ed program in the School District of Philadelphia, and because of the high level of families and children living in poverty, all students in the district were eligible for free breakfast and lunch. The improvement in standards was considered a victory because it ensured students would receive the most nutritious meals that the student meal spending allowance would permit. More importantly, it was considered a victory because those of us working in those economically disadvantaged, at-risk schools knew that those were the only meals many students would eat each day. Providing the students with the most nutritious foods possible at each school meal increased the likelihood of improved health and educational outcomes.
There are many socioeconomic factors that contribute to the success of public school students. The quality of a school meal is only a part of that equation. However, I cannot fathom why Republicans would want to reduce the nutrition standards of free and reduced breakfast and lunch meals. Reducing the nutrition standards would cut meal costs and save taxpayers money, but it would punish our most vulnerable children and youth. Why?
Is it so people can save more money because they are paying less in taxes? Rep. Dave Brat thinks so. He sponsored H.R. 937, a bill that allows for tax-free Universal Savings Accounts that will enable individuals over the age of 18 to save up to $5,500 in a calendar year. Those of us that have lived paycheck to paycheck know that saving is not easy. The 50-30-20 rule of budgeting (50% of income toward rent, utilities, food, basic necessities; 30% toward discretionary spending, and 20% toward savings) is not an option when you are working 40 hours per week at the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and often have to get a second job in order to support a family.
This makes me wonder whom Rep. Dave Brat is working for. Is he working for the constituents of Virginia’s 7th District – all 778,480 of us? While there is no way to precisely calculate the average income of the constituents of the 7th District – it ranges from a median household income of $79,330 and 7.4% rate of persons in poverty in Goochland County to median household income of $36,284 and a 23.7% rate of persons in poverty in Nottoway County. Most of the 7th District’s counties tend toward the upper end of the median household income rate and the lower end of the persons in poverty rate. Even at the lowest rate of persons in poverty (6.4% in Powhatan County), it is certain that at least 50,000 of us in the 7th District will be negatively affected or will receive no benefit from by the bills that Rep. Dave Brat has sponsored or cosponsored. Does that mean that those of us that are doing well can simply forget about those who are struggling financially, even if they are members of our own communities? Does that mean that residents of the 7th District or Virginians or citizens of the United States value personal prosperity over accepting responsibility for those that are less fortunate than us, especially when those circumstances are temporary?
If these bills are passed, they are a declaration of war on the poor. It would mean that when the United States Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell said, “Winners make policy, losers go home” (at a town hall meeting in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky last week), he wasn’t referring to Republicans and Democrats. He meant something else and he should have stated it more clearly by saying, “Rich people make policy, poor people go home.”