Scrooge's Congress

A report states that Congress did little this year to help children, and actually took steps that reduced the benefits children receive.

Published: Tuesday, January 6, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 5, 2004 at 9:40 p.m.

The Children's Defense Fund recently issued its annual report on decisions made by Congress during the past year that had a bearing on children. The fund concluded that "Ebenezer Scrooge could easily have been a member of Congress in 2003," said John Norton of the Defense Fund.

To be sure, progress was made in some areas. For instance, it reauthorized the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Both remain underfunded, but at least they've made it through a tax-cutting and service-slashing Congress.

Relatives, like grandparents and aunts and uncles who are helping raise the children, were given some help. And the American Dream Downpayment Act helps low-income, first-time home buyers get assistance in coming up with a downpayment for a home - legislation that helps poor and struggling families with children.

But the Defense Fund found that for the few steps taken forward, many others were taken back. For the second year in a row, Congress adjourned for the holidays without approving legislation to extend temporary unemployment benefits for an extra 13 weeks after regular benefits have expired.

That extra boost was first offered in March 2002 - when there were nearly 2.5 million more jobs open than are available now. Gov. John Baldacci of Maine complained in a letter to President George W. Bush that workers there no longer have the benefits that "have enabled them to pay for rent or mortgages, utilities, health care and prescription drugs, food and other bills" while they continue to "look for employment in a job market that has been slow in recovering." And Maine's unemployment rate is slightly below the national average.

Congress turned back a move to reduce a tax cut for America's wealthiest tax payers. As a result, the number of families eligible for credits and refunds under the Child Tax Credit was reduced. The Defense Fund estimated about 12 million children were affected, including 260,000 children of active military parents.

The Defense Fund report noted that while Congress funded educational programs under the president's No Child Left Behind Act, it did not provide for the increases the act envisioned. In Title I funding, Congress was $6.5 billion short of funding the amount called for in the act.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a program that replaced Aid to Dependent Children with the revamping of welfare, was reauthorized, but not before a major delay that left millions of families without assistance. The new rules raised the percentage of recipients that must work and increased the number of hours a week they must work.

The Defense Fund said the final version of the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill failed to include the children of legal immigrants. A provision by the Senate allowed, but did not require, states to cover legal immigrant children and pregnant women through Medicare or a state children's health program. The House rejected the idea.

Congress also took no action on a Mental Health Parity Bill designed to help children with mental health problems.

The House of Representatives passed a Head Start bill that the fund said would reduce the number of children served by the program by 6,000. It would also eliminate some federal standards and result in lower-quality care. It would turn the program over to the states, at which point it would have to compete with other programs that have been affected by budget cuts from Washington and reductions in state spending.

The Senate, however, isn't willing to agree. Last fall, the Senate's Health and Education Committee approved its own version of the Head Start bill, leaving out provisions that the states would take over the program. The Senate version also provides that more infants and toddlers will be served. It also broadens provisions to include more children of the working poor.

The White House favors the House version. Perhaps in the coming weeks before Congress reconvenes and considers the legislation, there will be a visit from Jacob Marley's ghost.

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