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The War on our Children

BY Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.)

We must stop accepting that low-wage, low-benefit part-time jobs are the best our children can do. We need to ensure a livable wage for all.

Funding a war in Iraq and providing tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans does more damage than Republicans in Congress care to admit. As they clamor on about patriotism, their funding priorities are costing America its future.

The Republican Congress is placing hurdles in front of our children that are nearly impossible to clear. At every turn, from age zero to 18, roadblocks have been erected that block them from reaching their potential.

Since 2002, Republican budgets have cut nearly 7,000 slots for children in low-income families to receive Head Start services. These cuts were made despite studies demonstrating that Head Start children are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to repeat a grade. Head Start students are also less likely to commit a crime than low-income children who do not attend Head Start. But such empirical findings mean little to a party that prefers its policies based on faith.

After slashing Head Start budgets, it seems only logical for Republicans to next target poor mothers with children under 6 years old. A recent Republican budget proposal would require these mothers to double their weekly work hours from 20 to 40 in order to remain eligible for job training and vocational education. Yet that plan fails to provide $10.5 billion for childcare funding that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated would be needed for mothers to afford to work the longer hours and maintain their benefits. The blatant hypocrisy would be comical if it weren’t true.

As our children–unprepared for the challenges they’ll face–reach public schools, they will get less help than ever before. After taking credit for “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), President Bush and his Republican allies wasted no time in underfunding the Act, thereby ensuring schools could not meet new, stricter achievement standards. As of June 2005, the House Republicans have shortchanged public schools by $40 billion since the passage of the much-lauded NCLB law. At the same time, yearly progress tests created by NCLB to determine if individual students are improving in math and reading show almost a quarter of schools failing to show improvement on state student tests.

If those weren’t enough obstacles to place in front of our children, the Republicans want to force the average student borrower to pay an additional $5,800 for college. The single most effective springboard to a well-paying job is a college degree. So, this year the Republicans are proposing $14.3 billion in cuts to federal student aid programs.

At every turn, our future is threatened–not by mythical weapons of mass destruction or by the lack of prayer in the classroom–but by policies that continually rob our children of the skills they need to compete. The results of such policies speak for themselves. Since President Bush took office, 1.7 million more Americans live in poverty and the average median income has declined $2,710. Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, has not been increased since 1997, and has its lowest purchasing power since 1990.

Recently, the impact of cutting our children out of America’s future became abundantly clear when a new Wal-Mart opened in my home community of Oakland, California. Some 11,000 people applied for 400 jobs that pay less than $20,000 a year and offer few benefits. It was a microcosm of the fate of working families everywhere, forced to get by with far too little.

Working together, America can do better. We can improve the economic outlook for our children by investing in their education. We can add funding for student loans and grants. We can provide vocational education and job training.

We must stop accepting that low-wage, low-benefit part-time jobs are the best our children can do. And for all workers, we need to ensure a livable wage and provide for paid family and medical leave.

Not surprisingly, two bills to do just that have been introduced by Democrats and were quickly buried by Republicans. In May, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) introduced The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005, which would have raised the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour over two years. In June, I introduced the Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, which would build on the highly successful Family and Medical Leave Act by providing up to 12 weeks of paid benefits to workers who take time off for reasons allowed under the new Act. Both bills would easily improve the lives of working families, but the priorities of this Republican-controlled Congress are focused in other areas.

If the United States can find $250 billion for a failed war in Iraq and give American millionaires an average tax break of $41,574 apiece in 2006, then the most affluent country in the world can find the funds to improve its schools and workplaces. Our future depends on it.

Rep. Pete Stark has served California's 13th District since 1973. He is currently the ranking minority member on the Health Subcommittee.

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