January is a time to reflect on what transpired the year before and resolve to make things better in the year to come. Congressional Republicans ended 2017 by passing a tax bill that leaves much to improve on for low-income and working families.
The tax legislation delivers huge giveaways to our country’s wealthiest households and largest corporations, strips health care coverage from some 13 million people, and ultimately raises taxes on millions of low-and moderate-income families. On top of that, the legislation sets the stage for a massive assault on various programs that ensure decent living standards and provide chances at upward mobility for people living in or near poverty.
But enacting a deeply unfair tax agenda wasn’t the only way that Congress failed low-income families just ahead of the new year. Federal lawmakers also failed to come together on a long-term extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) — a popular program that provides healthcare coverage to roughly 9 million low-income children and pregnant women.
CHIP has produced historic progress on children’s health. Since it was established in 1997, CHIP has worked hand-in-hand with Medicaid to drive the uninsured rate among kids to an all-time low of just 4.5 percent. What’s more, a large body of research shows that children who have access to publicly-funded healthcare enjoy longer, healthier lives, are more likely to graduate high school, and tend to have higher earnings as adults.
CHIP has been particularly important for children of color. Because of our country’s long-standing legacy of structural racism and discrimination, kids of color lack access to healthcare at much higher rates than their white peers. CHIP and Medicaid, however, have drastically reduced the racial coverage gap, extending insurance to more than half of all Black and Latino/a children.
CHIP has also long enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Indeed, since CHIP’s inception, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have recognized the importance of ensuring that our nation’s children have access to quality healthcare.
That is, until this year.
During their hyper-partisan pushes to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), gut Medicaid, and cut taxes for the ultra-rich, Congressional Republicans have let CHIP fall by the wayside. Senators Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-UT) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenClimate advocates turn sights on Wall Street Democrats scramble to reach deal on taxes Pelosi open to scrapping key components in spending package MORE (D-OR) struck a bipartisan deal early in September, but their plan has stalled in the Senate ever since. And while House Republicans have passed their own version of an extension, it pays for CHIP through partisan attacks on the ACA and by taking coverage away from low-income adults.
As a result, funding for CHIP expired on September 30th, touching off months of panic among state officials, health providers, and — not least of all — children and families. Nearly 2 million kids were set to lose insurance by the end of January, with millions more to follow soon thereafter.
Before returning home for the holidays, lawmakers averted a complete disaster by voting to appropriate funding to keep CHIP running for a few months longer.
While the short-term stopgap is better than nothing, quick fixes are no way to manage a program tasked with the monumental responsibility of ensuring our nation’s children are insured. State policymakers, hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and child care and school officials have lost the predictability needed to plan and prepare to provide care.
If federal lawmakers are truly committed to ensuring that all children can grow up healthy, thrive, and achieve economic security, they will move swiftly to renew funding for CHIP for five full years.
Furthermore, they must do so without attacking other key anti-poverty efforts. Programs such as SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), Medicaid, and housing assistance also improve the short- and long-term health of families; restricting access to them, whether through funding cuts or harmful policies like work requirements, promises to undermine the quality of life of tens of millions of low-income men, women, and children.
Congress should resolve to use the New Year to improve the lives and opportunities of people living in or near poverty. They can start by immediately extending CHIP, and they can continue by protecting the other supports and programs on which millions of struggling families and individuals rely.
John Bouman is the president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.