So Now That “That’s” Over, What Comes Next?

Bob Reeg

Bob Reeg

The “That” in question is the most recent in a series of breakdowns in Congressional functioning, this time manifest by the institution’s inability to adopt annual appropriations for the federal government to continue to operate, compounded by a lapse in authority for the government to pay its creditors. And, despite the laps being run around the ring declaring the continued funding agreement to reopen government (through January 15, 2014) and extend the debt limit (through February 7, 2014) a “historic victory,” these are actually just short-term crisis avoidance steps, not a long-term solution.

Alas, so now that “that’s over, what’s next for Healthy Teen Network, the members we represent, and the youth and families they serve in terms of our public policy focus? Here’s my take.

First, we will need to stay on top of – and engage in – the upcoming debate on the federal budget, both for Fiscal Year 2014 (which began October 1, but for which operations are continuing on FY 2013 funding levels) and for the long-term. Congress has appointed a group of its members to prepare a comprehensive budget plan for the full body to consider by the end of the year. The group must report its work by December 13.

Let’s be clear. While the political dynamics may have shifted due to the shut-down/debt ceiling debacle (in terms of balance of power between the President and Congress, Democrats and Republicans, tea party conservatives vs. other factions; public perception of which party is “at fault” for the shutdown, etc.), the philosophical and fiscal issues that paralyzed Congress from fulfilling its basic responsibility to finance the government remain the same. What are core functions of the national government? Should we balance the budget by spending cuts alone, or also by raising revenues? Should we balance the budget by cutting discretionary programs alone, or also by cutting spending on mandatory retirement and health care programs?  Should we reduce the budget deficit quickly or gradually? The network of federally-funded safety net programs that support children, youth, and families will again be in the crosshairs. So we had best gear up to stand our ground and insist on a strong federal role in ensuring youth health and well-being.

Second, adolescent sexual and reproductive health organizations should take full advantage of the federal laws and programs that remain available today. We must ensure that federal resources provided to address the sexual and reproductive health needs of young people, such as the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, Pregnancy Assistance Fund, Personal Responsibility Education Program, Maternal and Child Health Block Grant Program, and Title X Family Planning Program, are deployed most efficiently and utilized most effectively. (Healthy Teen Network plays a big role in that by providing training and technical assistance to recipients of these federal funds to guide them to desired outcomes.) Of course Healthy Teen Network will be calling upon our members to share their stories of the individual and community successes resulting from these federal investments as the programs come up for reauthorization and annual appropriations.

Finally, we urge families and young people themselves to utilize the network of federally-funded programs and services available to give them a hand up during times of need. Healthy Teen Network urges its members to help their program beneficiaries to connect to vital federal programs. Moms and dads with young children, including teen parents, should consider taking part in a home visiting program to build their parenting skills and help their infants and toddlers develop on schedule. Parents should enroll their children in Head Start or other early childhood development program. If you’re hungry, apply for SNAP benefits (formerly known as “Food Stamps”) or WIC (Women, Infants, and Children program). Make sure your school-age children attend school regularly, and demand your school district to help you get your child to school if you are not able to do so independently. Find a health center or family planning clinic serving your community. And most critically at this time, sign up for private health insurance or Medicaid from a Health Insurance Marketplace.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act, the landmark health care reform law passed in 2010, have attempted REPEATEDLY to dismantle the law. But they have failed repeatedly, too. Efforts are currently underway to encourage and help eligible families and individuals, including young adults and families with children and adolescents, to enroll in coverage, with the possibility of a federal subsidy for all or some of the cost of the insurance depending on your income level. If you lack health insurance coverage or know someone else without it, encourage them to explore whether the Affordable Care Act will get them the health care insurance and services that all people deserve in order to thrive!

When I see a news headline or Facebook post about Congress these days, I typically shake my head in either bewilderment or disgust. But when I reflect just a bit deeper about the programs and services that are available today to help citizens with vulnerabilities and challenges, such as those mentioned above, I return to a more optimistic state. For these very programs were established by past Congresses. And so we can return to that time. We can hold onto, and improve upon, this history of sound social public policy. But only if we elect representatives who hold a commitment to government as a solution for meeting human needs, and then demanding good legislating from those we select.

Bob Reeg is a Program Development and Public Policy Consultant at Healthy Teen Network.

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