We Can Be The Superheroes America’s Kids Need
This summer, the story of a pioneering superhero who saved the world from destruction enthralled and inspired millions. But you don’t need to be Wonder Woman — or any other caped superhuman — to hear the call of those in need, to take action, and to come to their rescue.
In these challenging times, those with the most to lose may be our nation’s children. The values and the programs that most benefit America’s 74 million children are under assault on multiple fronts. The most immediate of many threats is that without congressional action, funding for critically important health care for children will expire at the end of this month. In a word, our nation’s kids could use some superheroes.
Serendipitously, there are millions across our country ready to heed the call. You need look no further than the heroic volunteer rescue efforts of ordinary Americans in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, or the strangers who have stood shoulder to shoulder against racism, for immigrants, or to protect the national commitment to health care for all. And by standing together, they found a kind of superpower.
Now is the time to harness that power in service of the nation’s kids — tomorrow’s voters, soldiers, teachers, health care professionals, parents, and emergency responders.
As longtime child advocates, we are concerned about shifts in our country’s core values and policies that could make it harder to raise healthy children with opportunities to succeed and prosper. And these changes come on top of already serious challenges facing today’s children and families.
In today’s America, children remain the poorest age group. The childhood poverty rate is 18%, with children of color disproportionately poor. Progress on basic rights like health care and education has been imperiled in recent months at the same time children also face newer challenges.
The opioid epidemic poses a particular threat to kids. At least 2 million children have a parent who uses illicit drugs, including certain opioids. The number of children entering foster care because of parental drug abuse is on the rise, with nearly a third of all children entering the system due, in some measure, to their parents’ drug problem.
At least a quarter of our nation’s children are either first- or second-generation immigrants — many of whom are affected by changes in immigration policy. Immigrant children are more likely to live in poverty and have health issues, and they may also have experienced considerable trauma.
In addition, today’s children suffer from an array of behavioral health challenges. Although we are just beginning to see, for example, the effects of technology and social media use on young people, already studies have shown that excessive time online can lead to depression. An increasing percentage of teens report feelings of hopelessness and persistent sadness. Suicide recently became the second leading cause of death among teens, and that figure is on the rise.
While these challenges are daunting, we see the risks kids face today along with the growing community activism as an unprecedented opportunity to put children — and the families doing the hard work of raising them — at the front of the priority line.
Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have come together and achieved significant progress for children. It was people just like today’s activists who rose to the occasion and called for universal public education, fought for reforms in child labor, and advocated that all children benefit from health advances and medical breakthroughs like vaccines.
More recently, advocates have achieved important victories such as making sure every child has access to secure health coverage — including mental health services — and that families working in low-wage jobs can get a refundable tax credit to help make ends meet and begin to dent child poverty rates.
Just like those everyday activists of the past, today’s parents, educators, elected officials, and business leaders can mobilize around achieving concrete goals to lift up America’s children. They can become the superheroes kids so desperately need.
And, they can start today.
First, they can take immediate action with their members of Congress by pressing them to renew funding for the highly successful Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), due to expire at the end of September. Enacted in 1997 with bipartisan support, CHIP has been crucial in producing the remarkable achievement that a smaller percentage of kids today go without health insurance than ever before: 5%. The investment has more than paid off in improved health, education, and long-term financial success for kids. Activists can protect this progress and press their members of Congress for a clean, 5-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Second, they can learn about children’s needs and ways to get involved locally from well-respected organizations like United Way Worldwide and Partnership for America’s Children; raise issues that are important to children on social media, at town halls, and at community or faith forums; and vote for candidates who promote a safe and positive environment for children and support the needs of families raising them.
These are just the first of a series of concrete steps we, as a nation, must take for kids to give them a healthy and fair start in life. Activating our inner superhero for children will be a big win for kids, our country, and our shared future.
And if truth and justice were not enough, it’s also “The American Way.”
Wendy Lazarus is Director and Laurie Lipper is Chief Consultant of Kids Impact Initiative. Kids Impact Initiative aims to support and strengthen existing advocacy for children by increasing accountability on issues that affect children’s well-being and helping develop the next generation of advocates.