Living With Dignity

Heather Boushey

March 23, 2005

Members of Congress obviously value Terri Schiavo's life. After all, they called a special vote to make sure that her right to food would be protected. But what about all the other Americans who don't have food or health care—where's the congressional intervention for them? Heather Boushey of the Center For Economic and Policy Research questions if the debate over "dying with dignity" has overshadowed the larger question of why so many Americans don't have the basics to live with dignity.

Heather Boushey is an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research  in Washington, DC.

On Friday, a woman in Florida went hungry. Hundreds protested and sent letters to Congress. Congressional leaders became so enraged that they have called a special vote to ensure that this woman is provided with food. Congressional intervention is necessary, they argue, because access to food is her “constitutional right.”

On Friday, a woman in Florida went hungry. No one protested. The Senate was so indifferent to her and her family’s hunger that they voted down a measure that would have prevented $2.8 billion in cuts to the Food Stamp program over the next five years.

While Congress has spent the past few days making heroic efforts to restore the feeding tubes to Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years, they have also been debating the federal budget. While Terri Schiavo’s case has sparked passion about her right to live ­and her right to health care and food­, there is no passion for the millions of Americans who go hungry every day or the millions more who lack access to basic health care.

President Bush cut his vacation short to return to Washington so he could sign into law legislation that would restore Terri Schiavo’s feeding tubes. Last month, President Bush proposed a budget to Congress that would cut the Food Stamp program by $500 million over the next five years, leaving more than 300,000 low-income people without food assistance every month.

The proposed budget includes large cuts in federal programs providing food, housing, education and medical assistance to low-income families. It includes cuts in funding to those with HIV/AIDS by $550 million over the next five years. It ends Housing and Urban Development’s 30-year pledge to produce accessible supportive housing for people with disabilities. It will leave 670,000 fewer individuals on the Women, Infants and Children food program by 2010.

The proposed budget would reduce Medicaid's budget by $45 billion dollars over the next 10 years, leaving an estimated 1.2 million fewer children with health care each year between 2006 and 2010. This will mean that in Terri Schiavo’s home state of Florida, 67,400 fewer children will have access to Medicaid each year. The Senate has acted on its conscience and rejected the president's proposed Medicaid cuts; however, the House has yet to do so.
These proposed budget cuts will have devastating effects on the ability of millions of families to meet their basic needs.

The Food Stamp program allows hungry families to purchase food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 11.2 percent of all U.S. households are “food insecure;” of these, 3.9 million households suffer from food insecurity so severe that they go hungry.

Last year, nearly 70 million Americans went without health insurance for some time during the year. Children were more likely to go without it than adults. Medicaid provides health insurance coverage for one in seven children. Since only half of all children (53.0 percent in 2003) receive health insurance from an employer-based health insurance plan, Medicaid plays an important role in ensuring that millions of children have access to the health care system.

Having access to health insurance can mean the difference between life and death. It's been estimated that more than 18,000 people die each year in the United States because they lack access to preventative health care services or appropriate care. Over the long term, those without health insurance have a 25 percent greater probability of dying.

The Schiavo case has sparked debate over what it means to die with dignity and raised moral questions about who decides when a person lives or dies. But the case should also spark debate over what it means to live with dignity.

Why is it that a woman who cannot speak and cannot move should not be denied her constitutional right to food and water, when every day, men, women and children go hungry—without a right to food? Why is Terri Schiavo’s case more important than theirs?
Congress wants you to know that they value Terri Schiavo’s life. This does not seem to mean, however, that they value the lives of millions of other Americans denied their constitutional rights to food and health care.