By Amy Julia Becker
Even though I'm the mother of three small children, I've never been a huge fan of child safety regulations. I often roll my eyes at warnings on labels. I think back to my own childhood, when Fisher-Price Little People were shaped like cylinders instead of marshmallows, and we still managed to survive. I think back to my helmetless bike riding days. I often tell my kids that I believe in germs and dirt, by which I mean I bypass antibacterial hand wash, and I allow them to play with other kids who have the sniffles (though I avoid stomach bugs like the plague). I also allow them to take calculated risks that sometimes result in skinned knees and sometimes result in greater strength, balance, and flexibility.
So I read the recent Safe Kids Report on the effect of sequestration (aka the fiscal cliff) on children's health and safety with some degree of skepticism. And yet, despite my own laissez faire parenting, this report convinced me that our current budget impasse could lead to arbitrary and senseless cuts to government programs because these programs are necessary, appropriate, and largely cost-effective for ensuring the health and safety of children across our nation.
According to the report, "Unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 through 19," and "programs with a direct programmatic relationship to child safety would be cut by $4,586,863,600 in the remaining months of FY 2013." The report goes on to explain the effect of sequestration upon three government agencies, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (Injury Center), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Each of these agencies (among dozens of others with some responsibility for kids' health and safety) will receive sweeping eleven percent cuts if Congress is unable to avoid the fiscal cliff.
The report includes a helpful infographic that relates some of the potential safety risks to children. These risks include a reduction in the oversight of imported and domestic toys and baby gear that, statistically speaking, could mean "4.2 million more dangerous products for kids left on market shelves." Highway deaths for kids under 19 have decreased by a dramatic 29% in the past decade, due at least in part to the NHTSA's efforts to support car safety.
In addition to reducing the funding for programs like these that save lives, the funding decrease for some agencies could lead, ironically, to an increase in preventable injuries and therefore an increase in costs: "every three minutes a person dies of a preventable injury—the annual societal costs are $70 billion in health care and lost productivity." Poison Control centers serve as a helpful case study to demonstrate this point: "A parent who suspects that a child may have"¨swallowed a toxic substance or medication who calls"¨ a poison control center, rather than rushing to the "¨ER, is saving tax dollars... Each federal dollar spent to support "¨poison control centers saves $38.74 in health care"¨ costs and productivity." In other words, continuing these programs not only achieves the societal goal of increased child safety but also makes economic sense.
The report provides data points to consider while also raising important questions about the role of the government in protecting children, and about whether or not we are willing to invest tax dollars in the next generation. The percent of GDP spent on children could decline to under two percent over the next ten years. As the report says, "Spending less than two percent of GDP on investments to educate, protect, keep warm, maintain health and a multitude of other functions important to kids speaks volumes about how America views its next generation." It is in the best interest of our nation to keep our kids healthy and safe.
Although this report convinced me of the importance of these agencies, of my willingness to support them through tax dollars, and of my desire to live in a country committed to the health and safety of the next generation, it also raised a few questions. This type of spending cut—broad and immediate, rather than targeted at inefficiencies and/or enacted over time—will do far more harm than good. With that said, our country faces this fiscal showdown as a result of overspending.
Thoughtful cuts to government spending could, at least in theory, preserve the integrity of the programs at issue while simultaneously creating savings. Although it was outside of the purposes of this report, I hope the draconian possibilities emerging from sequestration might prompt conversations about the proper role of parents, local communities, and non-governmental organizations in keeping kids safe.
From the looks of the current budget negotiations, it's quite possible that our elected representatives will fall off the cliff of their own making. The Safe Kids report serves as one more reason to advocate for a budget deal that addresses the financial problems we face as a nation without punishing the most vulnerable among us.
Image: Fiscal cliff warning sign via Shutterstock