Last week I compared parents who allow their kids to be props in political debates to stage mothers. Instead of, “Judy, take one more Benzedrine and this time smile during the encore of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’” it’s “Madison, tell the nice man what Uncle Gore said would happen to the polar-bear cubs if people don’t drive better cars.” Maybe the political form of stage mothering isn’t as harmful to the kids, but it’s just as exploitative.
After the Graeme Frost affair, you’d think there would be lessons learned all around the folly of manipulating children to make a political argument. So when USAction sent out an invite to a conference call to introduce Bethany Wilkerson as the new face of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), I remained skeptical. Bethany, a two-year-old with a heart defect, is being trumpeted by USAction as the new face of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program debate.
I’m such a meanie that I immediately Googled her and found out that Bethany was recently voted “Tampa Bay’s Most Photogenic Baby.” Once pushy mothers waited nervously in the lobby of a Ramada Inn, frantically applying eyeliner to their two-year-old for the Sunburst International Southeast Regional Beauty Pagent, praying that the treasurer of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce serving as this year’s guest judge won’t demerit too much for spitting up during the talent competition. Now all you have to do is call you local liberal activist group and boom! Your child books her first national advertising campaign!
As it happens, Bethany’s award came not as the result of being a budding Jon Benet Ramsay, but rather status as a photogenic baby was bestowed on her as part of a children’s hospital fundraiser.
With two properties and three cars the Frost family’s personal wealth and relative need for free health insurance was the subject of much controversy. I doubt similar questions will be raised about Dara and Brian Wilkerson. She’s a waitress, and he works at the restaurant doing minor repairs and barbacking. Their employer does not provide health insurance, they rent, drive one beat-up car, and have a combined income of $34,000. On the conference call, Brian piped up to add “I have $57 in my checking account if that helps.” Combine that pressing economic need with Tampa Bay’s Most Photogenic and Heartbreakingly Unhealthy Baby™ and maybe this time congressional Democrats have found the right S-CHIP spokesfamily.
Except they haven’t. While the debate around the Frost family at least initially centered around their relative wealth, the issue really at hand is one of bad behavior. While USAction and a labyrinthine maze of leftist activist groups prepare to rally around images of Tampa Bay’s Most Photogenic Baby holding up a crayon sign that says “Don’t Veto Me,” Dara and Brian Wilkerson are real poster children — for irresponsible decisions.
On the conference call, Dara admitted to me that she and Brian had been talking about having children since before they were married. She further admitted that after they were married she voluntarily left a job at a country club that had good health insurance, because the situation was “unmanageable.” From there she took a job at a restaurant with no health insurance, and the couple went on to have a baby anyway, presuming that others would pay for it and certainly long before they knew their daughter would have a heart defect that probably cost the gross national product of Burkina Faso to fix. But not knowing about future health problems is the reason we have insurance in the first place.
Now, pause for a second. Are you reading this at your computer at work, in a job that you don’t particularly care for or even downright detest because you have a spouse and child that depend on you? You wouldn’t be the first or last person to make that choice.
For Dara and Brian Wilkerson, the fact that they don’t have health insurance is less about falling through the cracks than the decisions they’ve made. We know that Dara is at least capable of getting a job with insurance — so why does she not have one now? Even if it is difficult insure her child’s pre-existing condition, what about her and her husband’s health? Perhaps it’s rude to ask that question, but I think it’s rude to accept huge amounts of public assistance and then express gratitude by asking taxpayers to extend a Children’s health program to cover college-age kids who come from households making more than $80,000 a year.
Which brings us to another salient point — Bethany Wilkerson is healthy. She is covered by existing programs and has already received the much of the medical care she needs. The current debate centers on expanding the program, not kicking the Frosts and the Wilkersons to the curb.
So I hope Bethany grows up strong — I’m worried about her. Not because I’m worried that the state won’t take care of her, but I’m afraid that her parents will continue to set a bad example. In which case, she’ll need all the help she can get.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.