Before I went to medical school, I had little interest in politics. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my country; I spent seven years serving in the United States Navy and have always taken pride in being an American. I suppose the reason for my political apathy was because things had always gone pretty well for me.
I grew up in a conservative, upper-middle-class family with two working parents. I lived in a nice house, attended private school for several years, and went on vacations with my family. My parents worked hard (and still do) for what we had, and I’m confident they made sacrifices that I didn’t know about to provide that life for me and my brother. I never considered my family to be wealthy, but we were certainly comfortable. It’s fair to say that I faced relatively little adversity.
Throughout my childhood and into my young adult life, I was vaguely aware that there were people who struggled, but I rarely encountered them personally. Never once did I worry about where my next meal would come from, whether I would be able to stay warm at night, or if I would be physically, emotionally, or sexually abused by someone in my home. And at least to my knowledge, none of my friends worried about those things, either. My world, and for all I knew, the world, was pretty great.
It was my patients that changed my mind — patients that, due to a variety of societal problems, aren’t set up for a great future. Many children, through no fault of their own, are exposed to one or more “adverse childhood experiences” — a category that includes things like the loss of a parent, food insecurity, experiencing or witnessing abuse, or having a family member with substance abuse problems. Research has shown that the number of these experiences children have can have profound effects on their ability to succeed in life.
Today, I woke up yet again in a country where our government has failed to prioritize the needs of our children. In their purported attempt to “reform” our tax code, the Senate has placed the interests of corporations and the wealthy above those of families who are struggling to survive and above the needs of children who must strain their eyes to envision a promising future. And hidden within the 479-page Senate tax bill is a provision that eliminates the individual mandate for health insurance — a change the Congressional Business Office estimates will result in millions of Americans losing their health insurance.
Additionally, it has been over two months since Congress failed to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provides access to health care for nearly 9 million children who would otherwise fall through the cracks. The program, which has received broad bipartisan support since it was established in 1997, has apparently become too much of a financial burden. As Senator Orrin Hatch stated, “the reason CHIP’s having trouble is because we don’t have money anymore.”
To the politicians who voted for this tax bill or who do not grasp the urgency of reauthorizing CHIP, I extend an open invitation to spend some time in my pediatric office in rural South Carolina. If they did, they would watch me struggle to find help for a teen mom with severe depression. They would meet a mother and her child who now live with eight other people in a single-wide trailer because the house where they were staying burned down, and they have no money to rebuild or replace their belongings. They would spend time, as I do, with families whose biggest concerns are not whether to contribute to their child’s IRA or college savings plan, which private school to choose, or which SUV would be the most comfortable way to get them there.
Their concerns are far more basic: buying food and baby formula, paying for gas to get to the doctor, and hoping the power company doesn’t shut off their heat this winter. Many families are necessarily so concerned about providing for their children today that they have little time, energy, or money to devote to preparing for their future.
Because of my interactions with children and families who don’t have many of the advantages I did, I have become far more political and far less conservative. Without significant societal changes, millions of children will remain impoverished, imprisoned, abused, poorly educated, and poorly fed. Many of their lives will be derailed by substance abuse or unplanned pregnancies. And some of them will die, in one of the world’s most developed nations, from a lack of access to health care.
I respect that not everyone shares my political views, and there are plenty of reasonable conversations to be had about how to go about ensuring the best future for our nation and our children. But for anyone who doesn’t see a problem with our current situation, I’d encourage you to spend some time with the less fortunate. They have changed my perspective, and they may change yours as well.
Chad Hayes is a pediatrician who blogs at his self-titled site, Chad Hayes, MD.
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