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No shrimp left behind

OUR MEN and women in Congress must figure we are so busy pigging out on the holidays that we will not see its new spending bill as a turkey. Congress literally starves our brains while stuffing the nation with excess.

The $388 billion bill is loaded with dollars going to special interests related to pumping out more food. Congress is maintaining agricultural subsidies amounting to $16.4 billion. Alaska is getting $1 million to market seafood. Mississippi is getting $269,000 to harvest seafood. Oregon is getting $443,000 to make salmon baby food. Maine is getting $236,000 to research blueberries.

Congress is so serious about animal control that it is giving $50,000 to Missouri to control wild hogs. New York is getting $199,000 to control Canada geese. It is so serious about plant protection that it is giving North Dakota $335,000 to shoo blackbirds off sunflowers. It is giving Alaska another $150,000 to protect the Anchorage botanical garden from hungry moose. The protection effort that drew the most sarcasm from Senator John McCain of Arizona was $1 million for a "Wild American Shrimp Initiative."

McCain asked, "Are American shrimp unruly and lacking initiative? Why does the US taxpayer need to fund this `No Shrimp Left Behind Act?' "

In flush times, this might be neither here nor there, and you could go back to stuffing your face. But the same budget that did all that, let alone provide $350,000 for "education programs" for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, is the same budget that will also slash eligibility for college Pell grants.

Pell grants are the most important federal program for helping low-income students pay for college. Under current rules, 5.2 million students are eligible. But under new rules that raise the bar for qualification, 85,000 students will become ineligible, and 1.2 million more students could see their grants cut.

On the surface, Congress is raising funding for Pell grants from about $12 billion to $12.5 billion. The increase falls way short of both the growing need of students and tuition costs that have risen way more than inflation. In the last 10 years, the number of students who qualify has risen 37 percent. But the amount available for a student, $4,050, is virtually the same as in 2000. A quarter century ago, Pell grants covered a third of college costs; now they only cover a quarter.

Instead of seeing low-income students as sunflowers, Congress treats them as a life form lower than shrimp. The impact of the freezes and cuts will likely hit hardest on families making between $35,000 and $40,000, which in regions like the Northeast or the Bay Area is barely a livable wage. For instance, a study by the progressive Economic Policy Institute said, "a family of four in Baltimore would need an annual income of $34,732.28 just to meet its basic needs and achieve a decent standard of living. But at this basic level, it would have to give up as many `unnecessary' goods that most families take for granted, including restaurant (even fast-food) meals, vacations, movies, and savings for education, retirement, and emergencies."

The lowly status of low-income students is further cemented by the notion that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is getting education funds at the same time that the Cleveland public schools made horrific budget cuts. It is a symbol of our times that students are about to get a chance to learn more about entertainers at the very time they are being crammed into academic classes reportedly as large as 47 high school students.

One elementary school lost the previous year's entire 14-member fourth-grade teaching staff. That sounds like the ultimate solution for Pell grants. Make it impossible for kids to survive the public schools and a college grant will never enter their minds.

The spending bill was an amazing bipartisan spree for a nation that had to raise the debt ceiling at a time of war. The government is giving a total of $3 million to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Paper Industry Hall of Fame, the Audie Murphy American Cotton Museum, the B.B. King Museum, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the New York Botanical Garden, Jazz at Lincoln Center, motor sports training, and a weather museum in the home of Ground-hog Day.

Again, in flush times this might not rise to the level of complaint. But if teachers are being slashed across the nation, there will not be a lot of educated people around in a few years to show interest in museums, afford entry into halls of fame, smell the roses, or tell a ground-hog from a Norway rat. Congress tells students we are starving as special interests go from fat to obese. Their turkey gets stuffed. Kids are turned into pumpkins for a very stale slice of the pie.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is 

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