By Michelle Greenhalgh


Few would argue that the current federal government budget is sustainable. In the past month, Republicans and Democrats alike have made financial proposals for the future of our country.


A proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) cuts largely from important nationwide programs.  His scarcely detailed plan slashes from a strictly financial standpoint, failing to take into account the consequences of curtailing government-funded health care, education, research and technological innovation. This would negatively impact the poor, the elderly and the disabled. But perhaps more importantly, the cuts threaten the welfare of the next generation.  All of this makes Ryan’s plan patently unethical.


By contrast, the Obama administration’s proposal focuses on cutting wasteful programs, while continuing to invest in health care, technology and education for America’s future. The administration’s plan, while not perfect either, at least offers more details than the GOP’s proposal—by demonstrating how to cut the deficit without sacrificing existing programs.


I am of the generation that ushered in our impending adulthood by voting for the idea the Obama campaign came to own: “change.” Between 2000 and 2008, the number of U.S. voters in the 18- to 29-year-old category jumped from 2.1 million to 4.9 million.   In the 2008 election, for the first time in modern history, the youth vote was the key to the democrats overall success.


I’ve lived inside the Beltway for the past five years, and so tend to be a little more attuned to politics than others in my age group throughout the rest of the country. Yet, like many, in voting for “change” in 2008, I wasn’t fully aware of how important that act was with regards to the budget. Only in recent months has it become so obvious that we must use our voting influence to fundamentally transform the way the government allocates its money.


The irony here is that, while the youth vote has risen in record-breaking numbers, the federal government has drastically shifted its monetary support from the younger generation to overwhelmingly support the elderly.


The federal government spent an estimated $615 billion on programs for the elderly (those over 64), but only $148 billion on children and adolescents (those under 18), according to a 2000 report by the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).  More recently, a joint report done by The Urban Institute and The Brookings Institution found that, of the $3.5 trillion federal budget for 2009, only $334 billion—or less than 10 percent—was devoted to children.  That roughly translates to the federal government spending between $4 and $5 on the elderly for every $1 it spends on development programs for youth.


With just 5 to 10 percent of the nation’s budget dedicated to the younger generation, how will the United States remain a global leader in the future?  The underlying ethical question we are faced with is: What morals and beliefs should we choose to follow when we decide where to distribute federal funds?


While the current health care system and last year’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) are far from perfect, Ryan’s budget proposal [H.CON.RES.34] is not only imperfect, it is ethically misguided. Ryan’s budget puts America’s most vulnerable at risk by cutting the programs they depend on to live.


Having passed the House last week by a party line vote, the Ryan plan would cut billions of dollars from the Medicare program, which today covers an estimated 40 million Americans.  The cuts would raise seniors’ health costs by an estimated $6,400 annually and increase insurance premiums for small businesses and the middle class.


Ryan’s proposal would also repeal the health-reform provisions that call for the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), a 15-member panel of doctors and patient advocates who would be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. In short, this group would analyze the current Medicare system and recommend policies to Congress in order to provide better care at lower costs.

Under the Ryan plan, the Medicaid program would be slashed by nearly one third—by about $771 billion dollars over the next decade—and turned into a block-grant program. This change would give individual states more authority over which programs to allocate funding. But it would also increase the amount that states will have to pay towards the program themselves. Officials estimate that these changes would raise the number of uninsured Americans by 50 million.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which covers almost 8 million children who are ineligible for Medicaid, would also be cut under the Ryan plan, from $21.1 billion in 2015 to only $5.7 billion annually. Among some wonks, his bill has spawned the unfortunate pun that Ryan is “CHIP-ing” away at children’s health-care coverage.


Billions of dollars would also be stripped from key education programs, including K-12 education and Pell Grants, by 53 percent per person. In addition, the Ryan plan also cuts research and development funding for the science and technology sectors by 28 percent per person, as estimated by the Center for American Progress.


In reviewing the proposed cuts, it seems as though Ryan focused strictly on lowering the national debt and eschewed any ethical contemplation in determining how funding ought to be allocated fairly for all.


Sadly, the people who will be most affected by these cuts are currently the ones least likely to vote. Despite the dramatic rise in youth voting between 2000 and 2008, that demographic still lags far behind the elderly in sheer voting numbers. The sum of these changes would affect some Baby Boomers, but more heavily weigh on Generations X, Y, Z, and beyond—the future of our country.


It’s no surprise that the release of this budget proposal was timed to coincide with the kickoff of the 2012 campaigns.  Politically, the Republicans are trying to set up obvious distinctions on the budget between themselves and their opponents, in hopes of another electoral sweep.  Their game plan takes advantage of both an older generation’s short sightedness, and the next generation’s apathy.


Analyzing this situation begs the question – what ethical guidelines exist to help lawmakers decide how funding can be distributed?  Shouldn’t there be some type of uniform framework of which legislators can refer to in making these decisions?


The truth is, this type of scaffold simply does not exist.  Policymakers must rely on their own political and moral beliefs to make these decisions, which creates a hostile, partisan condition such as the current budget debate.


So with this in mind, I challenge lawmakers, as well as my generation, to think hard about all that’s at stake in allocating federal funds.


I challenge the politically-blinded in Congress to open their eyes and look to the future, while not leaving behind those headed into their golden years.


We have already seen the ramifications that inadequately controlled health care has had on our country – mainly in the astronomical cost of care and prescription drugs for our elders.  What consequences would cutting these programs even further have on future generations?


Then, I ask those partisan players in Congress to consider the implications that cutting other research and development, as well as education programs, will have on future generations.  If we cut all of these programs, while, for example, still maintaining tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and giant corporations, aren’t we just setting the livelihood of our country’s future for failure?


In planning for the federal budget, the fiscally focused in Washington must set aside partisan beliefs, and recognize the repercussions that inadequate federal funding will have on each distinct population.  The sum of these recognitions should help form an ethical framework by which legislative decision making should be based.


Lastly, to my generation, as we begin to take more responsibility in leading our country, I challenge us to make our voices heard, and to develop an ethical structure to consult as we make some of the country’s most important decisions.  We must base our votes on the ethical duty of social justice, at least as much as is fiscally responsible.  Once again, we must harness the enthusiasm of the 2008 election. But this time around, in addition to educating ourselves factually, we need to also consider the ethical underpinnings—or lack thereof—embedded in certain proposals that are said to make financial sense.


I want my generation to show America’s leaders that we can and will influence how federal money, our money, is spent—and do so without supporting proposals that are morally bankrupt, such as Rep. Ryan’s.


Michelle Greenhalgh, M.A., is a research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. Her interests include health law and policy, as well as social justice.

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