Foster parents like us willingly pay a heavy price. The GOP wants us to pay more.
Children, once an economic necessity, have become a luxury. We are able to afford them—to feed, clothe, house, enrich, and educate them into their teens or twenties in a state of complete economic idleness—with considerable help from the development of the welfare state. This is true, albeit in different ways, for Americans across the class spectrum. The housing, health insurance, and daycare costs of middle-class and wealthy children are subsidized through the tax code. The needs of poor children are met (inasmuch as they are) through a patchwork of direct expenditures that includes Medicaid, nutrition programs, and housing vouchers. Sophia qualified for some of these services automatically by virtue of being in the foster system, and it was incumbent on us to make sure she got them.
In the basement of our county health department, two weeks after Sophia’s arrival, we waited for our first appointment with the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program administrators. We were the only native speakers of English on our side of the counter, and we had to contend with the alien experience of being asked to demonstrate our poverty and to provide a host of documents we did not possess. We finally established Sophia’s eligibility through a splendid transitive property of indigence whereby her Medicaid card was proof of her WIC status. Thus persuaded, a nurse examined her height, weight, and iron levels. We were handed a stack of coupons for formula, baby food, and a few other staples following a course on nutrition that a middle-class parent might be strongly tempted to find demeaning.
WIC coupons work like this: each coupon specifies both what may be purchased (usually the “least expensive brand”) and a total cash value, in case you are tempted to purchase items of your own choosing. Each coupon must be rung up separately, and no personal money may be used to top off an order (though more than once a sympathetic cashier has shaved a little off a total when I miscalculated the weight of $6 worth of fresh fruit). You can also forget about defrauding Uncle Sam by swapping the coupons for cash, since each one needs to be signed in person with a signature that matches the folder that accompanies them.
We adjusted rather quickly to being treated like morons and petty thieves by bureaucrats. The social anxiety that comes with buying welfare food among our fellow citizens was worse. Middle-class people like to think of themselves as self-sufficient. But after a few months of shopping with WIC coupons, and contemplating my own sense of shame at this, I came to realize that we are rather selective in the forms of dependence we disdain. People who would not give a second thought to claiming the child care tax credit or the mortgage interest deduction will blanch at getting a bag of frozen peas on the public dollar. A WIC order grinds the line to a halt and prompts me to feel all kinds of self-consciousness about my deportment, my children, and the purchases I make with my own money. I got to know which cashiers were least given to suspicion or contempt, and I gratuitously mentioned Sophia’s foster status to defuse my own irritation. I don’t relish using the coupons, but they really help. When poor weight gain necessitated supplementing Sophia’s diet with PediaSure (at $12 for six bottles), the coupons became more valuable still.
Over those first few months, Sophia’s broken bone healed, her complexion brightened, and her sleep habits settled down a little. Our son fell for her even harder than my wife and I did. By Christmas they were inseparable, laughing when the other laughed and going together, Spartacus style, into time out when the other was being punished. Even after her initial injury healed, however, Sophia was a sick little girl. In the fall she had a string of ear infections that brought us to the doctor at least twice a month. A specialist determined that she needed ear tubes and was willing to take Medicaid. But this time it was the state that was unwilling to pay—a fact we learned only days before the surgery was scheduled to take place. We ended up leading an impromptu lobbying effort with Sophia’s caseworkers to change the minds of the state’s Medicaid bureaucracy, an HMO of the damned. They relented, in the nick of time, and Sophia was spared more months of perforated eardrums.
We had the same procedure done for our son less than a year and a half earlier with much less drama. But his health care is secured by private insurance and subsidized by a huge income tax exclusion. Sophia’s health care will only become harder to secure as providers leave the field and state Medicaid programs face tightening budgets.
Both the subsidy for our son and the expenditure for our daughter expand the scope of the federal government, and both impact the deficit in the same way. Yet when the time came to strike a deal over taxes and spending in order to increase the debt ceiling in August, the expenditures that support the children of the poor were on the table while the expenditures that support the children of the middle class and wealthy, thanks to the unwavering insistence of Republican lawmakers, were not.
As the “super committee” goes to work, the same story is set to be repeated. The White House successfully insulated Medicaid from the “trigger” mechanism that will produce automatic cuts should the committee fail to reach an agreement. But in that scenario every other program for poor children will get hammered, from WIC to early childhood development assessment. At the same time, plummeting federal aid to the states will tempt state-level lawmakers to cut into their half of the Medicaid spending formula. Either way, the interests of poor children—and the tools that make modern foster parenting possible—are coming to a dangerous pass.
The reward for persistence in foster parenting tends to be more requests to provide foster parenting. In March, a caseworker asked if we would take two brothers, a one-year-old and a five-year-old, for ten days while their foster family took a vacation. “Well,” my wife said reluctantly, “ask the other foster families, and if you really need us ”
“We really need you,” she was told.
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