Government Confusion and Dysfunction Increases Insecurity for Children, Families, and Schools

Life is filled with unknowns and eventualities we cannot control, but it used to be that we could expect the core functions and protections of government to be more or less predictable.  For twenty years now, parents whose jobs did not provide health insurance but who earned too much to qualify for Medicaid have been secure, knowing they could cover their children through the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a federal program administered by the states.

And in 2012 President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect the young people who were brought here as babies or toddlers by their undocumented immigrant parents. DACA ensured these young people could at least qualify for a driver’s license, secure a work permit, and know they would not be deported as they matured into young adulthood.

We seem to live in a time of diminished expectations. Ten or fifteen years ago, the DREAM Act was additionally aimed at protecting the DREAMERS’ right to higher education—to qualify for in-state college tuition and be able to apply for a Pell Grant or a federally protected college loan. While those aims became politically unreachable, at least President Obama was able to ensure through DACA that the estimated 800,000 DREAMERS have been protected from deportation and granted the right to earn a living in the society where they have grown up and been educated in K-12 public schools.

Since last September, however, when President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security rescinded DACA protection, all this has become uncertain for DREAMERS. Days later President Trump himself tweeted his support for DACA, and announced: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do).”  Today, despite much talk, the future of DACA remains in question. We watched Trump’s televised negotiation with Congress on Tuesday only to wonder what the President’s confusingly contradictory statements might mean, whether a hopelessly split Congress can possibly compromise, and how the policy confusion is affecting DREAMERS who are simply trying to live normal lives.  Education Week estimates that about 20,000 DREAMERS are employed today as school teachers.

Then, later on Tuesday night, we learned that a federal judge in San Francisco has blocked the Trump administration’s six-month phase out of DACA that began last September.  Here is Derek Hawkins of the Washington Post: “U.S. District Judge William Alsup… blocked the administration’s attempt to phase out Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation.  Alsup was tasked with, among other things, determining whether it would serve the public interest to leave DACA in place while litigation over the decision to scrap the program proceeds. On this point, he had an easy answer: Trump himself had expressed support for DACA on Twitter in September, just days after Department of Homeland Security officials rescinded it. ‘Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!'”

The words Hawkins quotes from in Judge Alsup’s order seem to summarize where we are as a country—the new level of uncertainty with which DREAMERS are living—and a new level of dysfunction in the federal government:  “We seem to be in the unusual position wherein the ultimate authority over the agency, the Chief Executive, publicly favors the very program the agency has ended… For the reasons DACA was instituted and for the reasons tweeted by President Trump, this order finds that the public interest will be served by DACA’s continuation.”

Fortunately for DREAMERS, the Constitution provides checks and balances—in this case the judiciary. Hawkins continues his analysis: “In litigation over Trump’s executive actions, no ruling seems to be complete without a section explaining how Trump’s tweets and public statements undercut the administration’s legal arguments… This is new territory for federal judges, according to Niels Frenzen, an immigration law professor at the University of Southern California. ‘We’ve never had a president tweeting like this… You have these extreme public statements that are shedding light on the motivation of the president in regard to why he is directing Cabinet secretaries to engage in these actions. The courts are saying these are fair game.'”

So… DREAMERS can take a deep breath, at least while a legal challenge to the phaseout of DACA moves forward.

Does this mean that Congress will stop negotiating on a way to address the needs of the DREAMERS—that DACA will no longer be a bargaining chip in the contentious battle over the continuing budget resolution that must be passed in the next two weeks to keep the government running?  Does this mean Congress will forget about the 800,000 DREAMERS because Senators and Representatives have so much other chaos to deal with?  Probably. Nobody knows.

And now for low income families and children there is another unknown—this time due to Congress’s own dysfunction and inability to compromise. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—which Congress had allowed to lapse at the end of September—seems to be out of money even though everybody had been told it had been fixed for the moment. In December, when Congress passed an emergency continuing budget resolution, it added a relatively small infusion of cash to protect CHIP—until March when Congress would again try to find a way to keep CHIP alive. Last Friday, Kaiser Health News published this warning: “Some states are facing a mid-January loss of funding for their Children’s Health Insurance Program… despite spending approved by Congress in late December that was expected to keep the program running for three months, federal health officials said Friday. The $2.85 billion was supposed to fund state’s CHIP programs through March 31.  But some states will start running out of money after Jan. 19, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. CMS did not say which states are likely to be affected first. The latest estimates for when federal funding runs out could cause states to soon freeze enrollment and alert parents that the program could soon shut down.  The CHIP program provides health coverage to 9 million children from lower-income households that make too much money to qualify for Medicaid.”

The NY Times editorial board spoke to this issue on Tuesday: “CHIP was created in 1997 and has helped halve the percentage of children who are uninsured. It has been reauthorized by bipartisan majorities of Congress in the past. But Republican leaders in Congress all but abandoned the program last fall and devoted their time to trying to pass an unpopular tax bill that will increase the federal debt by $1.8 trillion over the next decade… By contrast, CHIP costs the federal government roughly $14.5 billion a year, or $145 billion over 10 years. Republicans have held children’s insurance hostage to force Democrats to accept cuts in other programs.”

What has become the norm in Washington—in the Trump administration and in Congress—is dysfunction and rancorous fighting  that makes life more uncertain for America’s most vulnerable families, young people, and children. This kind of uncertainty is a public school problem as well, as 50 million of America’s children—many of them living in poverty and financial insecurity—bring the anxiety they absorb at home with them to school each day.

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Will Congress Get Around to Reinstating the Children’s Health Insurance Program?

As Congress returns after Thanksgiving, members face a complicated calendar.  They must pass a budget bill by December 8 (or another continuing resolution and an eventual budget by year’s end) to keep the government from shutting down, deal with tax reform that is a priority of the President and the Republican Congress, and deal with another try at changing the Affordable Care Act—something that has now been tucked into tax reform.

And then there are some smaller things, including reinstating the Children’s Health Insurance Program that Congress allowed to lapse on September 30.  What kind of society puts tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy ahead of medical care for its poorest children?

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was always a bipartisan effort—originally sponsored by Orin Hatch, a Utah Republican and Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.  CHIP is a program for the children of the working poor;  it covers 9 million children whose families earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private insurance. The program also covers low income women who are pregnant. And Mark Trahant, writing for OurFuture.org, explains that 54 percent of American and Alaska Native children rely on Medicaid or CHIP to pay for their healthcare.

NBC News explains: “CHIP is funded by a combination of state and federal dollars.  An estimated 11 states will run out of federal CHIP funding by the end of the year, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization, and 21 more states… will be depleted by March 2018.”

Annie Lowrey, in The Atlantic, describes the dilemma being faced by the state officials who administer the program: “The 50 states, according to the intricacies of 50 budgets and the laws and policies governing their 50 CHIP programs, are figuring out what to do.  That means figuring out how much money they have and how long they can extend coverage.  It means figuring out whether they need to cap enrollment or let a program lapse.  ‘It’s not just trying to pinpoint the exact date’ a state will run out of money, Jesse Cross-Call, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities… told me.  ‘It’s also executing whatever process is supposed to happen by statute or by whatever dictates the policy change at the state level. The process of putting together notices—states haven’t had to do that before. It’s not like they can call up that Word document from two years ago and change the date on it.’  It means figuring out how to enact a cap, freeze, or shutdown—something many states have never done.”

Writing for the Washington Post, Colby Itkowitz and Sandhya Somashekar describe how the federal agency that works with state governments is trying to inform state partners: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which administers the program at the federal level, issued a notice to state health officials on Nov. 9 detailing their options if CHIP funding does run dry.  States forced to end the program will need to determine whether enrolled children are eligible for Medicaid or whether their family will need to seek insurance through an Affordable Care Act marketplace, the guidance said… The program, which is credited with helping to bring the rate of uninsured children to a record low of 4.5 percent, has been reauthorized several times over the years. And under the ACA, the federal government sharply boosted its match rate. It now provides 88 percent or more of every state’s CHIP costs. Congress has been unable to agree on how to pay for the $15 billion program moving forward, however.  President Trump’s 2018 budget proposed to cut billions from CHIP over two years and limit eligibility for federal matching funds.”

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to reauthorize CHIP, but it takes money from other federal health programs to pay for reinstating CHIP—including cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Mark Trahant explains more about the bill the House has passed: “(T)hat bill included a $6.35 billion budget cut to other health programs, including the Prevention and Public Health Fund, which provides money for vaccines, smoking cessation, and other initiatives to improve public health. The House would also ban lottery winners from being insured by Medicaid, tighten the timetable for people to sign up, and change other rules.”  A Senate committee is considering another version.

Perhaps, some predict, a bipartisan compromise on CHIP will be part of whatever final budget agreement Congress must reach to keep the government running. But, if Congress is distracted what are seen as the bigger problems—passing some kind of budget—achieving promised tax reform for corporations and the wealthy, the needs of low-income families and children may again be pushed aside. One even worries that our society may have come to consider the children of the poor to be undeserving.

So, what does all this have to do with an education blog? Make no mistake, programs like CHIP and the Affordable Care Act make an enormous difference for public schools. Poverty is recognized increasingly as the variable most closely tied with academic achievement. Prenatal care and access to pediatric care directly impact children’s capacity to thrive and focus on school. Tax reform and avoidance of federal deficits must never trump the well-being of our nation’s children.