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Jeanne Dietsch writes regularly about politics and social welfare in New Hampshire. She is a former legislator. The Republican legislature recently voted to cut public school funding, to launch vouchers for private schools and homeschooling, and to cut property taxes.
A decade ago, I read a story in The Atlantic about a boy stranded at sea, in a boat that had been carefully crafted and tended by his grandfather, but neglected by his parents. The motor died and the dinghy was beginning to leak, amid tall waves, while he was still far from shore.
I see New Hampshire’s children in that boat. One in every nine children in NH lives in poverty – less than $22k per year for a family of three – compared with one in fifteen adults. Between 2008 and 2018, the proportion of children on free and reduced lunch rose almost 40%. NH has among the highest rates of college debt, highest tuition, highest growth in teen suicide. Educational achievement has been demonstrated over 50 years to vary with poverty and parental education more than race. Mental health problems can be caused or exacerbated by the stress of poverty and depression.
Are NH leaders ferreting out the causes of child poverty, the causes of mental illness, to root them out? No, because they would have to admit that defunding government and giving the private sector free rein is not working. They would have to stop steering tax cuts to the wealthy and powerful and start investing in children and the future.
Instead, the G.O.P. is defunding 22 positions at DCYF, the people tasked with protecting children, at a time when reports of abuse have increased. Is it because the state is short on funds? No, revenues exceed plan. It is because the pay scale for those positions is so low that DCYF has been unable to fill 41 vacancies. Last time NH let case loads rise to 70 per employee, two children died. The problem is not lack of funds, it is lack of interest from the G.O.P.
The G.O.P is also cutting the education stability grants that the Senate allocated to property-poor districts last term. This burdens those towns local property taxpayers. This increases poverty in those towns. Public schools hand out take-home meal bags to children who cannot rely on being fed over the weekend. Public schools must try to educate children of parents struggling with addiction, children who have no one at home to care for them.
Rather than address poverty and its impact on educational achievement, G.O.P. leaders merely bandage the wounds of a sick society. They inserted “Education Freedom Account” vouchers into the budget. The EFAs give $4600 per year to people already paying their children’s private tuition. For a family living in poverty, whose parents work extended hours to get by, a partial tuition subsidy is useless. And at least one for-profit company is already raising millions in startup money at the prospect of raking in NH taxpayer dollars for providing cut-rate instructional services. The goal of the company is to replace schools and certified teachers with aides who educate children in their homes. This, according to EFA supporters, will cut local taxes because: Professional teachers will be laid off. Schools will close. And taxpayers will no longer need to maintain the stranded assets of the school districts.These new “micro-schools” cater to people of similar economic, cultural, and educational background. Any sociologist can explain that the way to increase upward mobility is to create networks across boundaries. This approach traps children in bubbles of like-minded people, just as social media does.
Similarly, for mental health, the NH G.O.P majority is funding band aids, increasing budgets for treatment resources. For people already suffering from mental illness, treatment is crucial, of course. However, to ignore poverty’s role in depression and mental illness is like foregoing COVID vaccination and only treating patients after they are sick. It is foolish, expensive, and cruel.
New Hampshire has the second lowest birth rate in a country with less-than-replacement rate nationwide. Each child is that much more precious, as a result. Yet the G.O.P. refuses to invest in them. Is it not obvious that this is a recipe for future decline?
Are NH G.O.P. members so determined to prove that government can do no good that they refuse to use it to help children? Are they so self-indulgent that they only care about their own? Or are they just drinking the kool-aid of the cult?
Whatever reason drives each individual official, they act as a block. We must replace them. And we must not send to Washington any who place profit, power or party over our nation’s future well-being. The seas are rough and the G.O.P. seem willing to let the boat sink, as long as their kids have life vests.