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Some children are being left behind

Sr. Berta Sailer has known the downside of the culture for more than 30 years. She’s a co-director, with Sr. Corita Bussanmas, of Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, Mo., a comprehensive social services agency that helps 400 kids ages 6 months to 15 years. These are kids from tough low-income circumstances. Some of them are homeless, single moms care for 99 percent, and a number of them are foster kids.

Too bad they can’t declare themselves some kind of defense installation. They’d get more money than they can use.

But these are just kids like the kids in similar circumstances all over the country. Mostly hidden, no high roller lobbyists in Washington. If the kids could decipher the federal budget, they’d find out how much we value them. And they would know we’re not willing to put out money to back up all our pretty words of concern about children and making sure none are left behind.

Sailer knows welfare reform the part that doesn’t work, whether it’s moms who work and never see their kids or moms who just can’t manage more than two minimum-wage jobs at a time or those who, for other reasons, have slipped through the welfare net. Sailer’s got 450 kids on a waiting list. Once the waiting list reaches 450, they stop adding to it.

So you can imagine the joy at Operation Breakthrough when Bussanmas and Sailer, both Sisters of Charity, learned just before Christmas that they would be receiving $1.15 million from the federal government to help them to expand and to redesign a clinic area.

But we are becoming scrupulous as a culture in making sure that no needy person, no one in tough circumstances, receives too much from the common treasury.

As the sisters wrote in a letter to the local Kansas City Star, their joy was short-lived, upended by the news “that the funds may not come after all. … The Bush administration now says Congress did not appropriate enough money for Pell Grants, and the shortfall should come from funds earmarked for Operation Breakthrough and many other health and education programs.”

The Pell Grant program for next year will distribute a total of $10.3 billion. The maximum award for needy students averages about $2,700. Pell Grants are just a portion of the $67 billion provided by the Department of Education to help millions of students try to get a college education. Most of that total, however, comes to students in the form of loans or payment for work-study programs.

What a pity that needy kids at different points in their lives are forced into a tug of war over federal money. While the Pell Grant amount may seem a lot, anyone who’s sent a child to college knows that a few thousand a year hardly begins to satisfy the university finance office. As for the rest of that education aid? Most of it is returned as loan payments, with interest.

So the folks at places like Operation Breakthrough are left to sit on the sidelines and watch as the tug of money goes on in Washington. Meanwhile, it can’t be left unsaid, as that drama plays out, that if President Bush has his way next year, a total of $396 billion will be spent on defense. That’s more than a billion dollars a day. No defense contractor will be left behind.

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002