Overturn child labor laws?

We have watched much but not all of the Senate floor debate on health reform. We enjoyed Roland Burris’ version of the Night Before Christmas, which closed with “health care for all, even our friends on the right”.

But I was most taken aback to hear Sen. John Ensign (R-Nevada) cite favorably a US Supreme Court case that overturned child labor laws as the constitutional basis for opposing health reform. This is like citing Plessy v. Ferguson, the case in which the Supreme Court upheld state laws on segregation, as a justification for opposing Medicaid and Medicare, saying that the states should be responsible for health care for the poor and seniors just as the Supreme Court allowed states to set their own standards for segregation.

Overturn child labor laws? Eliminate the minimum wage? Why? Because the federal government should not interfere in the rights of the states to regulate the right of children to work or minimum wage. This parallels one of the fundamental arguments that is made by the opposition to health reform: the federal government should stay out of health care–except of course for Medicare (which Chuck Grassley and John Ensign now claim to support).

Just as it seems presposterous to think that the federal government cannot prohibit child labor or set a minimum wage, it should be preposterous to think that the federal government cannot reform health insurance. After all, regulation of insurance is a right reserved to the states under federal law, now long uncontested, the McCarran Ferguson Act. And if the federal government gave states the right to regulate insurance, then Congress and the President can act to change that.

But it gives us a glimpse into the world that the opponents of health reform seek–a world where there are no child labor laws to kill jobs for children, where there is no minimum wage to deny low-wage workers the chance to compete for the lowest wage, where there is no guaranteed Social Security benefit so seniors and the disabled live on whatever their family can help with. Today this is the world of the uninsured who are entitled to just as much health care as they can afford out of their own pocket.

We have written lots (and will write more) about how the health reform proposals now pending in Congress can be improved but here’s what we know: if we do health reform right, it is the equivalent of creating Social Security for retirement, the minimum wage for wages and yes, child labor laws to protect the most vulnerable among us.

And what we also know is that the fight still goes on to protect Social Security, to increase the minimum wage and yes, even more sadly but thank goodness more rarely, to protect children from being forced to work. Americans have a right to Social Security, they have a right to a minimum wage, and children have a right to go to school, not to work–and we should have a right to health care. So we agree with Senator Ensign that the fight for health reform is like the fight to outlaw child labor—but we think the federal government should outlaw child labor and he apparently does not.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.
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