CONTRIBUTORS

Right now, a U.S. toddler is starving because of Senate cowards

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Activists with the Center for Popular Democracy hold signs near the entrance where U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin's boat is docked in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 9, 2021. (Samuel Corum/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

It was two years ago this month that a working single mom turned anti-poverty activist from Wheeling, West Virginia, named Amy Jo Hutchison sat before a U.S. House committee on Capitol Hill and tried to educate members of Congress about the relentless hard work of being poor in America in the 21st century.

Hutchison told them about some of the other single mothers that she'd met while organizing in Appalachia, including one who lost food stamps and insurance because of the red tape when her kids took low-paying fast-food jobs and thus stopped taking her blood pressure meds — until her daughters finally quit their part-time gigs. She explained what it had been like for her when — despite working two jobs — she cashed in a jar of change for her own daughter to enter a music competition, while describing the nights she went to bed hungry so her kids could eat a second helping. She contrasted life for the working poor with the $40,000-a-year allotment that lawmakers get to buy furniture for their district offices.

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The anti-poverty activist told Congress that millions of Americans are "working while they're rationing insulin and skipping meds because they can't afford food and health care. Shame on you. Shame on you and shame on me. And shame on every one of us for not rattling the windows with cries of outrage at a government that thinks its offices are worthy of $40,000 a year but families and children aren't!"

Overnight relief: For once, Hutchison's plea to political leaders wasn't just a cry in the dark. Just 11 months later, Democrats retook control of Congress and — without a single Republican vote of support — struck the biggest win on behalf of struggling, working families since Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" in 1964-65. Spurred on by the economic hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, congressional Democrats used their thin majority to convert a complex year-end child tax credit for working parents into a monthly check and made the plan more generous, up to $300 per month per child. Reaching at least 26 million households, experts said that overnight the plan was helping America cut child poverty in half.

I should have known better — that America's shame can always get so much worse. I should have seen it coming — that legislation that would have continued these monthly payments to families facing economic peril would get caught up in so much Capitol Hill baloney. The fatal stab in the back would come from Hutchison's own Democratic senator, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, who floats on the Potomac on his houseboat yacht far downstream from any understanding of why his own state ranks 46th for families in poverty.

Thanks to the intransigence of 51 mostly millionaires — the opposition to President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" legislation from Manchin's massive ego and 50 Republicans determined to make Biden a failed president, regardless of any civilian casualties — the checks stopped coming last month, just as abruptly as they'd started last spring. The impact was immediate — and massive.

According to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, child poverty in America spiked in January by 41%, from a rate of 12% to 17%. The center said Black and brown households were hit the hardest. But the most staggering finding was the raw number of U.S. children plunged right back into poverty — an estimated 3.7 million.

Manchin isn't alone: It's completely understandable to throw the lion's share of the blame onto Manchin, who was too busy throwing his bipartisan boozefests aboard the Almost Heaven — paid for, like his Maserati, by the dirty coal dollars that made him a multimillionaire — and taking every phone call from the lobbyists for Exxon Mobil or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce rather than listening to his constituents like Hutchison on what it's like to be really poor. Instead, the West Virginia Democrat defends his immorality with the lazy myths of the Fox News bubble, privately telling his colleagues he worries — without any evidence — that parents would use the money to buy drugs rather than feed their kids. That's unconscionable, but it's important to remember that Manchin isn't alone.

In a reconciliation package that needs just 50 votes (and the tie-breaker from Vice President Kamala Harris), Manchin's vote wouldn't matter if just one Republican like Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — who saved her job in 2010 as "an independent" and who just appeared in a lovefest with Manchin on national TV — believed that feeding children was a higher moral value to engage her for-now empty platitudes about the virtues of "bipartisanship." Ditto for Utah's Mitt Romney — an on-the-record backer of government aid for working-class families, who wants some kind of Profiles in Courage medal for voting to convict Donald Trump but is too cowardly to buck GOP leadership when the issue is putting a roof over a young child's head.

Old habits: The contempt that is rightfully thrown toward Manchin should also be held for every rank-and-file Republican like my own straight-outta-Wall Street Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who — retiring when his term ends next year — doesn't have to worry about a wackadoodle Trumpist primary challenge. Yet Toomey would still rather spend his final months obsessing over his new hobby of cryptocurrency and his old hobby of beekeeping while honoring his oldest habit of all: ignoring his constituents. Toomey produces gallons of honey every year from his two bee colonies but can't produce a vote to put something sweet on the table of Pennsylvania's food-insecure infants and toddlers.

Shame on Pat Toomey! Shame on Joe Manchin! And shame on the broader system that sees 3.7 million kids slip-sliding needlessly into poverty as business as usual, and not as the biggest scandal in America right now, which it is. Even Biden — whose administration deserves credit for devising the scheme and getting the temporary version passed last year — seems to have moved on. With lobbying for Build Back Better on life support, Team Biden is busy drafting the largest Pentagon budget in American history, expected to target $800 billion or more for new tanks and stealth fighter jets, the only “need” that both Democrats and Republicans support without question.

Can we all just stop what we're doing for one second and let out a collective scream over how immoral this all is? Making the Child Tax Credit changes permanent would cost an estimated $100 billion a year, which would equal trimming just 12% or so from the budget of a military that now spends more than the next 10 nations combined. America can't keep pretending that it's fashioned the world's greatest democracy when that creation works for Lockheed Martin's lobbyists but not for a working mom like West Virginia's Amber Roy, who used her final government payment in December to afford her kids' Christmas gifts and wanted Manchin to know that, "We are begging, we're begging for the scraps."

This February, Hutchison was back on Capitol Hill, this time with a half-dozen equally desperate moms from the Mountaineer State — arranging 500 teddy bears in a display across the National Mall in sight of the Capitol, with each stuffed bear meant to represent 500 additional West Virginia kids who lapsed back into poverty after Manchin and his colleagues failed to act.

"This is really hard," one of the other West Virginia moms, Stormy Johnson, told The Washington Post. "At no point in time do we want to broadcast our vulnerability and the struggles that we are going through and our children are facing. This shouldn't be a thing. We shouldn't have to do this."

I'm furious over this failure — more so than over anything I've seen in politics in a while, which is saying something — and I hope you're as mad. Part of the frustration is that if these millionaires won't listen to the mothers of anxious, food-insecure kids, who on earth will they listen to? Maybe, in the spirit of the faith that so many of them profess on the campaign trail, when they finally meet their Maker, He will block their path with the hungry faces of the innocent kids that these senators had refused to look at — blinded instead by the high-tech gleam of an F-35 fighter jet. That would be cosmic justice, but it would also be too late.

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.