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What If Poverty Set the Government’s Agenda?

With several key reports due in the coming weeks, the war in Iraq is sure to continue to dominate the headlines as well as the time and attention of a Congress just back from its August recess.

Over the next two weeks, defense, foreign-policy and intelligence committees will hold a series of hearings to consider reports that document the status of progress in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Iraq. Among them are a Government Accountability Office report on Iraqi progress in meeting certain bench marks of political, economic and military improvement and the long-anticipated report of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Petraeus and Crocker are expected to assert that military progress in Iraq in recent months has created an opening for the political progress that has thus far lagged behind, a message the White House likely will reiterate in a report due to Congress by Sept. 15.
 
Once Petraeus, Crocker and the White House have delivered their assessments, the Senate will take up the defense authorization bill (HR 1585). At that point various proposals concerning the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq will likely be debated.
 
On the domestic front, Congress will seek to reconcile the differences between House and Senate legislation to reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is scheduled to expire at the end of the month. The president has threatened to veto either of the bills, favoring a smaller SCHIP program in coverage and financing.
 
In mid-August the administration released guidance to states limiting their ability to expand SCHIP coverage to children in families with incomes above 250 percent of the poverty line. The move conflicts with congressional efforts to address the increasing numbers of uninsured children in middle-income families that is driven, in part, by declines in employer-sponsored coverage.
 
Also up for reauthorization this year, is the No Child Left Behind Act, which is the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. On Aug. 28, leaders of the House Education Committee released a staff-discussion draft of their plan for reauthorization.
 
A full committee hearing is set for Sept. 10, with markup of legislation to follow and possible consideration by the full House by the end of September. The Senate is expected to follow an equally ambitious schedule at a slightly later date.
 
These developments come hard on the heels of the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual release of data on poverty, income and health insurance. While the overall poverty rate has declined for the first time since 2000, the number of children living in poverty remained unchanged and the number of uninsured children increased for the second straight year.
 
In 2006, roughly 12.8 million children, or about 17.5 percent, lived in families with incomes below the official poverty level of $20,650 for a family of four. Since 2002 the number of children living in poverty has either increased or remained the same annually, so that overall 1.2 million more children are living in poverty than was the case in 2002.
 
In 2006 the number of children without health insurance increased by 600,000 to reach 8.7 million. Nearly one in five children in poverty is currently uninsured.
 
If poverty set the agenda, how might Washington address these issues? Would our leaders redouble their efforts on behalf of children in poverty?
 
Would the administration accept some expansion of SCHIP, rather than advocating a smaller program?
 
Would the focus of NCLB shift to supporting public schools with interventions that build school capacity by improving the skills of teachers, supporting strong leadership among principals and making families more welcome at school?
 
Would our leaders fully fund Title I, so that federal requirements do not reduce expenditures for other educational programs in public schools?
 
The current sanctions of NCLB undermine efforts to build school capacity by driving Title I funds away from the very school districts that need the greatest support, especially urban districts with diminishing tax bases and expanding needs that serve populations increasingly segregated by race and extreme poverty. While Title I funding is small relative to state and local funding, it is the federal government’s primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity.
 
The actions of government alone will not address the persistent poverty that touches the lives of too many children in our society and beyond. Significant progress in reducing child poverty will require both government action and engagement from the private sector.
 
The church must assume its proper role in promoting both. Perhaps one way of doing so is being persistent in asking the question, both within and beyond the church, “What if poverty set the agenda?”
 
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is national coordinator for public and social advocacy with National Ministries of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.