Let Them Eat Horses?

Nutrition

Rest assured, the will of the people has prevailed: the U.S. government will study the possibility of increasing our nation’s supply of horse meat. In these tough economic times, it is heartening to see Congress’s concern. On the other hand, significantly less concern has been demonstrated for the needs of our nation’s infants, toddlers, and pregnant women – though this admittedly makes them a tad luckier than the horses themselves, all things considered.

In the U.S. House of Representatives agriculture appropriations debate last week, Members of Congress stood up to propose a series of deeper and deeper cuts to the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) supplemental nutrition program, ostensibly in the name of deficit reduction. Perhaps in an effort to avoid continued public financing of nutrition assistance for our nation’s most vulnerable children, another set of Members argued passionately that the poor state of the economy means we really must cease preventing private owners from selling their horses for meat production.

We have heard repeatedly that a tough economy requires tough decision-making. But who knew there would be these types of trade-offs? If we were to make the tough decisions based on evidence, countless research – by Nobel Laureates no less – has shown that spending on children is one of the most cost-effective investments we can make and the key to securing and improving our nation’s future. If we were to make the tough decisions based on public support, polling has revealed most Americans do not support spending cuts that would hurt children. And yet, we continue see proposals for deeper and deeper cuts, on both the federal and state levels, which will undoubtedly impact kids.

So the question must be asked: is it even possible to protect children while also reducing the deficit? In a word, yes.

A few months ago, we chronicled the U.K.’s successful campaign to effectively halve child poverty (as measured in absolute terms) in ten years following the announcement of a national child poverty reduction target. In recent years, though, the U.K. has been hit just as hard as the U.S. by the global economic crisis and subsequent recession, and as a result, their budget – as is ours – is now under serious pressure. Yet, it terms of maintaining budgetary priorities, the two countries are quite different.

A Congressional briefing hosted last Thursday by Senator Bob Casey and First Focus featured a new report on the divergent responses. In it, author Jane Waldfogel documents the concrete steps taken by the U.K. (to date) to maintain its commitment to reduce child poverty in the midst of deficit reduction – even following a change in government to a coalition led by the Conservative party. These include a set of income support policies and investments in early childhood and K-12 education.

It is important to note that despite these protections, the U.K. is still instituting severe cuts across the public sector – the deepest many have ever seen – and the longer-term effects on child poverty remain to be seen. Indeed, a member of the U.K. media featured at yesterday’s event cautioned against relying on the government’s rhetoric alone – highlighting the need for advocates, opposition parties, the media, and the public to maintain pressure on the government to keep its commitment.

But the takeaway message from the U.K. is that children are actually in the debate. The U.K. government acknowledges the importance of spending on children and there is a level of accountability tied to the child poverty target. Surely there is a lesson for the U.S. in there somewhere (see: horses v. child nutrition, above).

The political and legislative processes in the U.S. tend to treat the cost of spending on children as an economic loss in the present, rather than an economic investment in the future. This needs to change. Whether through an appeal to morality, economic rationale, or even an appeal to national pride (if the U.K. can do it, why can’t we?), we need to build will and build an agenda around protecting and investing in children in our federal budget. If the horse meat lobby has figured out how to do so, surely the children’s community can too.