By Benjamin Todd Jealous
The federal government shutdown is approaching three weeks. At the time of this writing, the shutdown has already furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers, frozen social programs for low and moderate-income communities, and significantly slowed down economic growth. The great irony of this temper tantrum over federal health care reform is that it has reminded us just how important the federal government really is.
This manufactured crisis is just the latest battle in a deeply troubling war against the Affordable Care Act. In the three and a half years since President Obama signed the bill into law, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to repeal or defund it 42 times, while shirking many of its other responsibilities. As millions of Americans struggle with unemployment, untenable student loans and a middling economy, extremists in the “People’s House” have chosen to prioritize political theater over the immediate needs of the American people.
But in an ironic twist, the repercussions of their grandstanding have only served to illustrate the important roles that government plays in our everyday lives.
The stories stream in to Capitol Hill from across the country, only to fall on deaf ears. Free health care clinics for the poorest of the poor are unable to take on new patients. Habitat for Humanity has lost federal funding for new affordable housing projects. On the first day of October alone, more than 19,000 American children lost access to Head Start services, and that number continued to grow until two philanthropists stepped in with stopgap funding.
Striking examples can even be found in Congress’ own backyard. The federal government has not authorized Washington, DC to spend its own tax dollars, so the District’s budget is frozen just like any federal agency. The city has frozen Medicaid payments for 220,000 residents, and it is quickly running out of reserve funds to pay for police and ambulance services.
These stories play into the ongoing debate about the size and role of government, which inevitably raises related questions about race and class. Although people of color will be disproportionately impacted by these developments, the truth is that low-income white communities will suffer in far greater numbers. So it is not only ironic but truly tragic that some activists associated with the Tea Party have chosen to inject race into the conversation by flying the Confederate Flag at rallies on the National Mall. They are forgetting that White non-Hispanics, who make up 42 percent of the poor in this country, actually receive 69 percent of all government benefits.
It is time to end this shutdown. We need to continue to put the pressure on our elected officials and demand accountability. Call your congressional leaders. Tell them that enough is enough. The NAACP is strongly urging all sides to put aside partisan politics and come to the table to work out real solutions in good faith.
The Affordable Care Act is here to stay. Extremists in Congress need to admit that other federal programs deserve their funding as well. Every day of this shutdown only reminds us how the federal government provides a safety net to those in need, and a leg up for those vying to make it into the middle class. No amount of pointless grandstanding will change that fact.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is the president and CEO of the national NAACP.
This column was first published in USA TODAY.