Columns » Max Brantley

Merry Christmas, but what about the new year?

Legislators and the governor rushed to get before TV cameras last week at a feel-good media event.

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Legislators and the governor rushed to get before TV cameras last week at a feel-good media event.

They'd brought Christmas gifts to distribute to the 4,600 or so Arkansas children in foster care.

Leave it to me to be the Grinch.

Politicians beamed in camera lights the same week the governor rolled out yet another task force, this one aimed at making the Department of Human Services "more efficient."

This behemoth of an agency, mostly financed by U.S. dollars, has a nearly impossible task of serving the vulnerable young, the infirm elderly, the physically and mentally challenged, the sick and the poor. Undoubtedly, there is waste. Undoubtedly, there is some duplication. Indisputably, mistakes sometimes are made, sometimes with awful human results.

But the continuing theme of Gov. Asa Hutchinson is that the agency is rife with overspending. The state can do more with less. Already, children are suffering from our current effort. The number of children in foster care is rising. Some case workers have been added, but their number remains far below a sufficient level and the pay contributes to the lack of allure for an already difficult job.

The same week, another Hutchinson task force also recommended the continuation of Arkansas's use of Obamacare to expand Medicaid coverage for poor working families. But a condition for Hutchinson will be to make the program more punitive and to effectively drive some people off coverage, whether with new fees or other disincentives. He also promises to cut some $800 million from existing state programs for the needy — not because the money isn't available, but just, well, because. Inevitably, some share of those savings won't be in loss of profits for nursing homes or salaries for health care workers, but services lost to families least able to find other ways to obtain them.

The legislature learned, too, last week of the rising number of mothers who've given birth to children who tested positive for drugs (two-thirds of them marijuana). This new law can lead to removal of still more children from homes, in theory when other complicating factors are found. The randomness is striking to me. Alcohol testing is not done on newborns, by the way.

When you find sick and abused children, you find disproportionate poverty. So the Christmas gifts rang somewhat hollow to me from politicians who left the bottom 40 percent of wage earners in Arkansas out of the 2015 income tax cut and who also rejected a state earned income tax credit for poor working families.

Against all this is a backdrop of raging debate about child protective services. Cases abound of system failures, none more high-profile and politically tinged than that of Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), who gave away adopted children to the home of a sexual predator. Still, some legislators argue that the state moves too aggressively in removing children and that parents are punished, for example, for education deficiencies that aren't of their making.

Culturally, Arkansas is more inclined to turn to paddles and punishment than therapy and education when it comes to children in need. We are a national leader in defense and use of battery of children (corporal punishment). Sunday, Chad Day of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote of the appalling number of judges who lock up young status offenders with young criminal offenders as a recipe for dealing with truancy, parental disobedience and runaways.

So, thanks for the Barbie dolls and basketballs, politicians. But what you do the other 364 days of the year is a whole lot more meaningful. If only the cameras were always rolling.

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