The political stakes and motives are plain to see. President Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are locked in a desperate struggle with the Republicans who control the U.S. House. Neither side wants to be painted as villains in the sorry saga of the partial federal government shutdown, or even worse, in any default on U.S. government debt. Each wants to take credit for whatever solution to the impasse finally emerges.
At the same time, while hoping to spin the situation to their political advantage – or to avoid disaster – the opponents also seek to advance long-standing policy goals.
The conservative vision embraced by most Republicans is one of smaller, less costly government in a society where market forces are given relatively free rein. That leads them to push for spending cutbacks, especially in the so-called entitlement programs that drive the domestic budget.
Push back comes from those more concerned about ensuring a strong government safety net to protect society’s vulnerable – children, older people, the unemployed and those caught in the sinister traps laid by poverty.
Reasonable people can disagree over how to “right-size” the government. Still, there’s no getting around the cruel ripple effect that budget and spending cuts can have on Americans who exist at the ragged edge of hunger, illness and deprivation. That’s what North Carolina’s own government must find ways to mitigate.
It’s hard not to wonder if Republican dominance in Raleigh and an alignment with GOP hardliners in Washington had something to do with the state’s initial willingness to stop funding an important nutrition program in line with the federal shutdown.
The Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was no longer issuing vouchers under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC. That gave North Carolina the dubious distinction of being the only state to take such a step in response to the dwindling of federal funds.
To the rescue rode the office of Gov. Pat McCrory, whose state budget director, Art Pope, said on Oct. 11 that enough money was on hand to keep WIC running for now. If the shutdown stalemate can be resolved in Washington, a few weeks of stopgap state funding should mean no hard-pressed mothers left worrying how they could afford to buy baby formula or other food they need.
Those mothers and their kids were on the point of becoming more collateral damage in the overall budget battle, which congressional Republicans have waged in an effort to block Obama’s health care program and to slice the federal deficit. In North Carolina, according to a report in The News & Observer of Raleigh, the state counts 264,000 women and children as WIC beneficiaries, obtaining food along with health counseling. Most already had been issued their vouchers for October, but without the change of signals announced by Pope, there would have been no further help until the shutdown ended.
Perhaps it was Pope, or perhaps it was McCrory himself. But let’s be thankful that someone in authority recognized just how unconscionable it would be for North Carolina to become the only state among 50 that couldn’t shield poor women and their hungry kids from the Washington crossfire.
The shutdown means much more than furloughed federal bureaucrats. It cuts a swath across the spectrum of federal programs, many of which channel money to the states. When the government is running per usual, arguments about the scope and scale of those programs can seem rather theoretical. But when the stop-payment orders go out, suddenly those arguments have immediate consequences for real folks.
They could be those who rely on WIC. Or they could be people with disabilities whose publicly funded job training services get knocked for a loop. That’s another aspect of the shutdown fallout in North Carolina, where the Department of Health and Human Services has told 140 organizations providing such jobs to turn out the lights, in effect, because federal money has dried up. This might not put people’s health at risk. But surely it affects their quality of life.
As a state and society, we should be able to do better for people whose disabilities pose the kind of challenges most of us will never face. Or to frame it from the Council of Churches’ perspective, we share a duty to care for the least fortunate among us. Helping those with disabilities pursue activities that give them a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment – and that may well make them legitimate participants in the economy – certainly passes the test as care worth sustaining.
Naturally, the same could be said for making it more feasible for millions of Americans to go to the doctor or to have an operation because they now can afford health insurance. It’s beyond scandalous that access to health care in this country has been so correlated with the size of people’s bank accounts. (Yes, the poor can obtain treatment at hospital emergency rooms, but the cost of that care simply gets passed on to everyone else through higher prices and premiums.)
The conservatives seeking to “repeal and replace” the program they call Obamacare can point to its shortcomings, but they seem not so much interested in fixing it as maintaining a status quo that has meant hardship for so many. Their willingness to let the federal government undergo a partial shutdown as they try to throw Obamacare off the tracks – no matter the harm the shutdown is causing – speaks to values and priorities twisted by cold political gamesmanship.
There is no Christian mandate to support a government swollen beyond reason or truly oppressive in the tax burdens it imposes. But there is, or should be, a mandate to support a government that has resources adequate not only to defend the country, but also to make the kind of investments that have a multiplier effect on the national well-being. Those are investments in education, health care, job training, pollution control, infrastructure.
Why a mandate? Because the well-off will find ways to look out for themselves. It’s the poor and the marginalized who may need some help from the rest of us to enjoy a fair share of the American birthright. Selfishness is not a trait that jibes with the Golden Rule.