Congress Messes Up: Fails to Renew Children’s Health Insurance Program by Sept. 30 Deadline

Last Saturday, September 30, Congress let the Children’s Health Insurance Program lapse. When the program was reauthorized in 2015, Congress set September 30, 2017 as the deadline for renewal.  If Congress can get its act together, it can still vote to renew the program. But the longer Congress waits, administrative and fiscal problems will grow for the states who are partners in this effort, and medical problems will loom for children when coverage is threatened.

There is widespread concern that failure to renew CHIP on time is a symptom of Congressional disfunction.  On September 18, Senators Orin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) introduced a bipartisan bill to reauthorize CHIP, but momentum collapsed in the Senate during the late-September debate over the Graham-Cassidy bill to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

Writing for the New Republic, Clio Chang quotes Bruce Leslie, president of the children’s advocacy group First Focus: “There was growing attention and movement towards getting this done and then Graham-Cassidy came up and everyone stopped talking to us about it. It was hard to get meetings after that, to talk to people about the Hatch-Wyden bill.  People were like, ‘No we’re 24/7 on Graham-Cassidy’… It just dumbfounds me that they’re not doing this… It’s a no-brainer.”

In her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss explains that the failure to renew children’s healthcare legislation cannot be without consequences for the nation’s public schools. CHIP is a health insurance program for children in poor and moderate-income families: “If action is not taken soon to restore the funding, the effects will become obvious in schools across the country, with many of the children in the program unable to see a doctor for routine checkups, immunizations, visits when sick and other services.” According to Strauss, the program cost to the federal government in 2016 was $13.6 billion.

CHIP currently covers 9 million children. Writing for Roll Call, Rebecca Adams explains: “CHIP was instrumental in boosting the share of children nationwide who have coverage from 86 percent in 1997, the year Congress enacted it, to 95 percent of U.S. children today.”

CHIP is a federal-state partnership with funding provided by the federal government (and enhanced in some states through their own budgets) and the states administering the program. Adams explains that the impact of Congressional failure to renew the law on time will affect states differently depending on whether they have any program money left unspent: “States can use two-thirds of any leftover money until it’s gone, leading some lawmakers to suggest that the deadline is not a hard one.”  Minnesota will be the first state to run out of money: “The state would likely be out of money for coverage of low-income children and pregnant women by the end of September… Minnesota is the first state to hit a funding crisis, but others are on the cusp.  Nine other states are projected to face a shortfall by the end of the year… By late March, 32 states would likely drain their money.”

Adams continues: “There are complicated consequences if the funding deadline lapses. If Congress were to take longer than a couple of weeks beyond the deadline to renew the program, some states plan to take steps toward capping enrollment or shutting off coverage entirely… Every state would also face the hassle and costs of preparing for changes and training their staffs… Most states do have budget cushions that would protect their programs for at least another month or two… And parts of CHIP would halt completely Sept. 30.  For instance, states would lose the ability to expedite enrollments or the renewal of a child’s benefits in CHIP by using information from other programs such as State Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid, or the food stamp benefits…. That so-called ‘express lane’ process has helped kids get covered without delays.”

The failure to renew CHIP is puzzling because there seems to be widespread bipartisan support for the program.  Adams wrote her Roll Call piece on September 25, days before the deadline. Describing comments from Congressional representatives and their staffs to explain lack of attention to the CHIP deadline, Adams reports that most everyone said Congress was distracted by the debate about the health care exchanges in the Graham-Cassidy bill:  “(T)he health care law exchanges get far more attention. Lawmakers blame this year’s chaotic legislative fights over the law as the primary reason they have been distracted from passing routine, bipartisan updates to existing health care programs that are expiring and must be renewed in order to function… Federal lawmakers say they are doing their best in a year fraught with tensions over the direction of the country, an ambitious agenda, an unpredictable electorate and a nascent presidency that Republicans want to use to reshape the federal government’s role in Americans’ lives.”

It is a tragedy that healthcare for the nation’s most vulnerable children fell by the way. Please let your Senators and your Representative know that you want the Children’s Health Insurance Program renewed as soon as possible. Here is a link to the Action Alert provided by the Network for Public Education.

Teachers Can’t Fix Poverty or Problems Like Housing Eviction

For twenty years, our society has embraced a theory of school reform whose driving idea is that if schools expect more and teachers work harder, test scores will rise among the students who struggle.  It is a theory that expects public schools themselves to compensate for growing economic inequality and structural racism.  The idea is that schools are primarily responsible for closing the gaps in children’s opportunities.

Social scientists, on the other hand, tell us that children’s standardized test scores seem to correlate not so much with their schools as with their families’ economic circumstances.  An income inequality achievement gap has grown rapidly during the past half century.  Here is the theoretical explanation of Andrew Grant-Thomas and John Powell: “A social system is structurally inequitable to the degree that it is configured to promote unequal outcomes.  A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures… In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion.” (Andrew Grant-Thomas and Gary Orfield, editors, Twenty-First Century Color Lines, p. 124)

Although we are a society that features structural inequality and structural racism, most of us are not personally familiar with the lives of families on the edge. Because our American ethos credits success to individual grit, we struggle to understand why hard working teachers can’t get the children in their classes to pull themselves up more quickly.  Michael Harrington tried to help 50 years ago by describing The Other America.  To that same end, from time to time this blog is exploring—in Grant-Thomas and John Powell’s words—“highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities” that conspire to make it hard for children quickly to raise their test scores and schools to close achievement gaps.

This week’s New Yorker features Forced Out, a stunning piece by Harvard ethnographer, Matthew Desmond, on what happens when families with very low income face a shortage of affordable housing—structural factors that mean some families get evicted again and again and again.  While the public school is the primary institution most middle income parents encounter on a regular basis, in the Milwaukee family Desmond profiles, very different institutions intrude: the shelter, the sheriff”s squad carrying out evictions and foreclosures, the public housing authority, the welfare case worker, and the eviction court. The mother of two boys—ages thirteen and five—cannot possibly forge a relationship with any one school, though it is apparent throughout the piece that her boys’ safety and well-being drive the decisions she makes.

Desmond’s article and his book—Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, that will be published next month—grew from his dissertation research at the University of Wisconsin Institute for Research on Poverty.  Desmond is a 2015 MacArthur genius grant winner.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports: “To study eviction, the subject of his doctoral dissertation, he lived for four months in a trailer park on the south side of Milwaukee and nine months in a rooming house in the city’s north side. ‘I came to the realization of how essential a role housing plays in the lives of the poor… Eviction embroils landlords and tenants, lawyers and social workers.’ He discovered there was hardly any data or studies on evictions.”

Evictions as a trend are not something most of us have noticed. Neither have we thought about the likely impact of such a trend on children and their schools: “These days, evictions are too commonplace to attract attention. There are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders.  Some moving companies specialize in evictions, their crews working all day long, five days a week.  Hundreds of data-mining companies sell landlords tenant-screening reports that list past evictions and court filings.  Meanwhile families have watched their incomes stagnate or fall as their housing costs have soared.  Today, the majority of poor renting families spend more than half their income on housing and millions of Americans are evicted every year.  In Milwaukee, a city of fewer than a hundred and five thousand renter households, landlords legally evict roughly sixteen thousand adults and children each year.”

When the mother profiled by Desmond tries to get on the list for a Section 8 voucher, here is what she finds: “The list of applicants for Milwaukee’s rent-assistance program was notoriously stagnant… ‘The list is frozen,’ she was told.  On it were more than thirty-five hundred families who had applied for assistance four years earlier and were still waiting for placement.  It could have been worse.  In larger cities, like Washington, D.C, the wait for public housing counted in decades.  Three in four American families who qualified for housing assistance received nothing…”

Desmond concludes: “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”  “In a typical month, three in four people in Milwaukee’s eviction court were black, and three in four of those were women. One female renter in seventeen from the city’s poorest black neighborhoods was evicted through the court system each year, twice the number for men from the same neighborhoods, and nine times that for women from the poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up less than ten per cent of Milwaukee’s population but nearly a third of its evicted tenants.”

How does eviction affect children in school?  Desmond describes the life of the thirteen-year-old boy in the family he profiles: “He and his brother had grown used to churning through different apartments, neighborhoods, and schools.  In the seventh and eighth grades, Jori had attended five schools; when the family was homeless he often skipped class to help Arleen look for a new place.”

“For many poor Americans, eviction never ends,” writes Matthew Desmond.  I urge you to read Forced Out.