Senate's Proposed 2016 Budget Turns a Deaf Ear to the Needs of Young Families

A politician counting money in front of the US Capitol Building
A politician counting money in front of the US Capitol Building

As Congress gears up to pass a new federal budget, the proposed Senate Budget outlines cuts to a number of social equalizers, such as education, health and housing. The plan proposed by the Senate not only maintains the Budget Control Act's current cuts but proposes cutting an additional $236 billion in non-defense discretionary spending over the next 10 years. Without providing specifics, the plan proposes cutting $4.3 trillion to mandatory spending programs including Medicaid and food stamps over the next 10 years.

Yet in the midst of the cacophony of budget balancing, the voices of young parents and their families are virtually absent from these conversations -- and their needs often lost in this fray.

Some of the nation's most vulnerable families are headed by young parents, many who juggle poverty-level wages and social shaming. From homelessness and housing insecurity to violence and abuse, these young families face hardships that should be at the top of our nation's agenda to solve, rather than in the budget shredder.

There is no powerful lobbying arm for young parents, and it is easy for society to cast them aside as a cautionary tale about what might happen if teenagers become pregnant. Our research shows that stigmatizing young parents has little impact on preventing unintended teen pregnancy, yet it creates a social hostility that erects unbelievable barriers to their success. Rather than empathize with young families, Congress -- and most of society -- are more likely to relegate them unworthy.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we launched the Hear Our Stories project to capture the stories of young mothers and better understand their needs and desires. These young parents endure amidst heartbreaking circumstances. In contrast to what society might expect, the women speak most often about being shamed and, as a result, disenfranchised by the very people, policies and government meant to support them.

Homelessness and housing insecurity are very real for young parenting women and their families. For some young mothers, access to housing and related social services becomes almost a full-time job as they manage a cyclone of requirements to obtain them. It is estimated that nearly a third of young families are homeless in Massachusetts alone.

One young mother and her brother were employed when their mother found out that her Section 8 payment would increase as a result of her children's hard work, thanks to rules by the Congressional "chastity" bill that makes it hard for poor families to stay together. The young woman was forced to move with her baby daughter to a shelter. Her brother lived on the streets. Both eventually lost their jobs due to their tenuous housing circumstances.

Another young mom found housing at a Teen Living Shelter Program (TLP), where she navigated unsupportive staff, tensions with other residents, and a sense of imprisonment. Another, also living in a shelter with her husband and child, had her young son illegally removed from her care for a prolonged period due to a paperwork mix up at the hospital.

Many of our storytellers told of facing extreme violence and trauma in their lives. A staccato of violence has pierced their young lives, from childhood on.

Many of the women described constant dislocation, moving around from place to place, never feeling at home. One young mother described her housing situation as "all this scribble scrabble everywhere," when asked if she could map the places she has lived. Instead of the loud reverberations of inequality that incessantly pervades their lives, most women just asked for a quiet place for their families to call home.

Stories like these illustrate the complex web of requirements vulnerable families already face as they work to support their families. Families need greater access--not increased barriers--to resources.

As the Congress works to create a reasonable budget, surely these are not the families that should be abandoned. Congress must provide opportunities for young families and organizations that advocate for young families to provide testimony so that they know and understand the devastating impact of these cuts in their lives as they contemplate budget allocations. These families' voices and experiences matter.

Lifting up the safety, dignity and hope of our most vulnerable families should be our greatest priority, not our disposable remnants.