Washington’s kids are at the edge of the fiscal cliff

As the federal “fiscal cliff” looms, we’re hearing more about how various scenarios would affect politicians, defense contractors, high-income taxpayers, seniors and other constituencies. But an important group of Washingtonians with a lot on the line has been largely ignored: children.

The stakes are immense, because the recession’s impact on children is still being felt in families all across Washington. A recent analysis by the nonpartisan Urban Institute found that nearly 150,000 Washington children live with an unemployed parent. That’s more than a 90 percent increase since 2007. When you look at kids living with a long-term unemployed parent, the increase is more than 400 percent.

Washington’s need for Basic Food (called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program nationally) has increased more than 100 percent. Nearly one-fifth of Washington children live in poverty – a sometimes temporary condition that leaves a durable imprint on a child’s healthy development. And these hardships are disproportionately borne by children in communities of color, which often face a persistent and imposing opportunity gap.

Federal investments can – and do – protect children from the worst harms of a bad economy. Together, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit lift nearly five million children out of poverty nationwide.

Both bipartisan credits reward hard work. And both support local economies, helping parents buy food, clothes and other basics from area merchants. Likewise, federal unemployment benefits lift 600,000 children out of poverty.

But it’s not just cash in parents’ pockets that makes a difference for kids. The child hunger rate would be much higher without the Basic Food program, which provides nourishment for almost 500,000 Washington children. Supported by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid, our state’s successful Apple Health for Kids coverage connects nearly half of our state’s children with the care they need to be healthy.

Together, these successful investments have driven the uninsured rate among children to record lows, even as the recession has cost millions of parents their employer-sponsored coverage.

Voters get it. An Election Day poll found overwhelming bipartisan support for investments that protect kids. More than 80 percent of voters (including about 75 percent of Republicans) want Congress to protect family tax credits that lift kids out of poverty. About the same share wants Congress to protect children’s health coverage and to deliver a concrete plan to cut child poverty in half.

Yet Congress has placed each of these investments – and many more that protect kids from economic harm – on the chopping block.

If Congress fails to avert the fiscal cliff, important anti-poverty improvements to unemployment benefits, the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit will automatically be repealed. Doing nothing also triggers automatic cuts to education, nutrition for pregnant women and babies, and other important investments.

But some of the “solutions” on the table would do as much or more harm than doing nothing. For example, the budget plan passed by the U.S. House would actually restrict kids’ access to the Child Tax Credit, raising taxes on working-poor families.

That same plan, touted by House leadership as a blueprint for fiscal cliff negotiations, would also make deep cuts to Basic Food; it would put the health care of 30 million children at risk by fundamentally undermining Medicaid and ending CHIP.

Dangerous cuts like these disproportionately impact the children of color who, propelled by changing demographics, are going to take an ever more prominent role in our economic future. If we tear down Basic Food, Medicaid and other economic supports that keep families strong and moving to self-sufficiency, we’re not just hurting families – we’re stifling our economic potential.

That’s why it’s so important for parents – and every Washingtonian who wants to keep Washington competitive in the global economy – to send a clear message to Congress: Don’t cut kids.

Kids didn’t create the federal deficit. And denying children the critical nutrition, health care and early learning they need to grow and thrive – the basic building blocks of successful adult lives – is the wrong way to fix it.

Bruce Lesley is president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, a bipartisan organization in Washington, D.C., that advocates for making children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Jon Gould is deputy director of the Children’s Alliance, a Seattle-based children’s advocacy organization.