A better place to build a wall

Photo by Eddie Seals

In all the talk of building a border wall, Austin’s Marlena Rios wishes she could build a wall of her own to keep the children safe in her community. President Trump’s budget blueprint promises to defend national security by a $54 billion increase to military and defense spending including $2.6 billion for a border wall and $80 million to combat “illegal entry and unlawful presence.” But is a nation really “secure” if it cannot protect the lives of its most vulnerable?

Rios, a working mother of three, keeps watch everyday on the children in her public housing community because security here is weak. Even the police admit it: Henry Moreno, an Austin Police liaison with the city, says most crimes in Rios’ neighborhood in southeast Austin, 80 percent, in fact, are not committed by those within the community. Yet staff at Rios’ complex acknowledge that they remain understaffed, underfunded and unable to protect residents.

Crime, however, is only one of many threats Rios and her neighbors grapple with daily. The lives of the community’s most vulnerable residents — its children — are dominated by insecurity: fear of homelessness and daily hunger, fear for sick siblings, laid-off parents and closed schools. These children live in constant fear of what new loss will come next. And they are typical of the one in seven U.S. children who live in poor neighborhoods like theirs.

For Trump, improving the security of Americans lies in bolstering a defense system that is “stretched far too thin.” This affirms a Republican ethos on safety and security and yet we know, from years of work in economically distressed communities, that these cuts target the very security systems — social, educational, emotional and health — that children rely upon to survive and thrive.

The proposed cuts withdraw support at critical times in young people’s lives, including early childhood, during potentially enriching or risky after-school hours, during transitions through high school, and periods in which support is needed to earn a college degree. These cuts will create deficits of care, and put in peril the security of our nation’s children, one in five of whom already live in poverty, with one in six facing hunger, and one in 30 who are homeless.

One of the security programs facing cuts, SmartKids, caters to youth in public housing. It’s a place children can be sure to receive after-school meals and also receive academic, behavioral and emotional support through tutoring and enrichment activities, counseling and connections to social services. Social workers who run the program routinely carry caseloads of more than 100 students with only two full-time staffers. If they are really lucky, they will get an intern or AmeriCorps member who is available  to regularly show up. Every school day, and during the summer, they try and find enough time and energy to support all their kids and move them through obstacles. But they are stretched thin, emotionally fatigued, and need more staff to achieve reliable, consistent support.

Trump’s budget, however, would cut funding for SmartKids by eliminating the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which supports after-school programs, and the Corporation for National Community Service, which runs AmeriCorps. These proposed cuts are deep and far-reaching. They extend to programs that support affordable housing and vital infrastructure, programs that seek to eliminate the root causes and conditions of poverty, and those that revitalize communities by creating suitable living conditions and economic opportunities.

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics argues that the budget cuts place an undue burden on vulnerable children: “In department after department, agency after agency, programs that protect children are severely cut or proposed for elimination altogether.”

In this moment, the White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s message that the cuts are “as compassionate as you can get” must be heard alongside the voices of impoverished children in Austin and across the country. These discussions — in questioning what is cut and who is and remains insecure — must also recognize that no nation that endangers the stability and prosperity of children can call itself secure.

Bisola Falola

Researcher, UT Austin

Caroline Faria

Geographer, UT Austin