Building a Better America and World for Our Children
We are living in a life-changing moment where it is clear that the future will look quite different than we had imagined. We are all sheltering at home, practicing social distancing, and focusing most of our attention on the twin crises of COVID-19 and the related worldwide economic recession. Obviously, it is critically important to find that balance between protecting the health of people worldwide and protecting the economy from collapse and the harm that will have on people’s lives.
Focusing on the need to improve the care and delivery of services to children and families is desperately needed, but we often forget that such work goes hand-in-hand with advocacy. The funding and delivery of services to children and families comes from both the private non-profit sector and government. The latter is hopefully responsive and accountable to the public. We must not forget the important role that advocacy plays in ensuring there is funding even available for the delivery of services and supports.
However, because corporations, interest groups, and the wealthy are engaged in politics and bring money and influence to the table, the needs of children are often an afterthought in public policymaking.
During consideration of the President Trump’s tax legislation in 2017, the final bill provided nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy but managed to leave some families with children worse off. In a package where a few trillion were been doled out to the well-heeled, the dependent exemption was eliminated and changes to the Child Tax Credit to try to hold families “harmless” failed to address the problem that, as Sophie Collyer and David Harris explain, “23 million children are ineligible for the full Child Tax Credit because their parents earn too little to qualify.”
Ron Brownstein said in The Atlantic:
The House and Senate measures shower enormous benefits on households at the top of the economic ladder, a group that by all indications is older and whiter than the population overall. Then it hands the bill for those benefits largely to younger generations, who will pay through more federal debt; less spending on programs that could benefit them; and, eventually, higher taxes.
Compounding the injury, while President Trump and Congress were working for several months on the tax bill, they allowed funding for health coverage of 9 million children covered by the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to expire, leaving critical healthcare for vulnerable children hanging in limbo for four months.
This occurred despite a Kaiser Family Foundation poll finding 62 percent of the American people believed “reauthorizing CHIP funding” should have been the top priority of President Trump and Congress in November 2017 compared to 28 percent believing “reforming the tax code” should have been a top priority.
Combined with subsequent policy changes that also negatively impacted health coverage for kids, the uninsured rate for children is now rising for the first time in two decades.
That is unacceptable and it must change. Children deserve better.
To create a government that will pay attention to, better serve, and be more responsive to the needs of children, we must engage in advocacy. As Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, explains:
The battle begins with political engagement itself. . . Those who disdain the arena are unilaterally disarming themselves in the great contests of the soul.
To believe something creates an obligation to make that belief known and to act upon it within the arena. Politicians are far more often mirrors of public sentiment than they are molders; that is the nature of things in a popular government and should be a course of hope for those who long for a change of presidents or of policy.
To increase the chance of progress for children, we must engage with and demand that policymakers make kids a greater priority and push them to agree to the notion that the “best interest of children” should guide and direct any and all policy decisions that involve them.
Unfortunately, every aspect of the lives of children are being negatively impacted by both the COVID-19 and economic crises. School closures have deepened the inequity and learning gaps in our society.
The economic shutdown and increased family stress are leading to a rise in child abuse and family violence as well. In Fort Worth, emergency room doctors are reporting an increase in deaths of children caused by blunt-force head trauma.
The dual crises are also increasing child poverty, homelessness, and hunger in children. With respect to child nutrition, the federal government’s promise to help the 22 million children that rely on free or reduced meals at school through a Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program has failed to reach the vast majority of children. Even if Department of Agriculture and states finally get this assistance to children, the provision expires in a few weeks.
Today, children are also at an even greater risk of sexual assault, suicide, substance abuse, and trauma. Children need a more focused, coordinated, and effective response to protect children in our country and around the world.
Despite Elon Musk’s tragically inaccurate tweet claiming that kids are “essentially immune,” the health of children is at tremendous risk because the virus is infecting them too, but also because of its impact on families and the shutdown is causing children to miss developmental screenings, pediatric appointments and services, and immunizations. As an example, UNICEF estimates that 117 million children will fall behind on immunizations across the world.
Therefore, beyond focusing on “reopening the economy,” sending children back to school, starting the baseball season, rethinking safety at concert venues, and deciding what the “new normal” looks like, we must be working on ways to come out of these crises with the hope of a better America and a better world for the next generation.
In November, we will be having elections that determine the next president, more than one-third of the Senate, the entire House of Representatives, governorships, state legislatures, judicial races, city councils, county commissions, and school boards. These elections will give voters the opportunity to decide what kind of leadership we want in search of a better vision of “what we can be.” That process must be more open and accommodating of voters than the Wisconsin debacle a few weeks ago, and we must make children’s issues part of that conversation and debate.
Children, their well-being, and future are on the ballot. We must push for candidates to put forth a positive agenda to improve the lives of children and educate the public so they fully understand what is at stake.
Vision matters. The stories our leaders tell us matter — almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children — because they orient the country to what is, what could be, and what should be. We must understand what worldview and values they hold as sacred and what it means for our future, particularly for our children.
Leadership and policy matters. Leadership is the art of the possible. At critical moments in time, certain leaders rise to the occasion and unite the country toward justice and fairness. While some politicians may choose to demonize and scapegoat the most vulnerable or divide the nation, others will inspire the nation with a vision of unity and civility for all people. History tells us that some of the world’s leaders are better equipped to handle such moments than others.
In a New York Times piece entitled “The America We Need,” the editorial board points out:
The crucible of a crisis provides the opportunity to forge a better society, but the crisis itself does not do the work. Crises expose problems, but they do not supply alternatives, let alone political will. Change requires ideas and leadership. Nations often pass through the same kinds of crises repeatedly, either unable to imagine a different path or unwilling to walk it.
Franklin D. Roosevelt led our nation through the dual crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt said of such moments:
All our great Presidents were leaders of thought at times when certain historic ideas in the life of the nation had to be clarified.
Elections are about our future. Even before the current crisis, 1 in 6 children in America were living in poverty and child poverty was 54 percent higher than that of adults.
Unfortunately, the economic recession will undoubtedly cause child poverty to get significantly worse and, unless the nation affirmatively tackles this problem, it will have long-term consequences for the next generation. Jason DeParle of the New York Times explains:
Poverty is also likely to rise disproportionately among children, a special concern because brain science shows that early deprivation can leave lifelong scars. Children raised in poverty on average have worse adult health, lower earnings and higher incarceration rates.
However, this is tragic, but it’s solvable. Over a year ago, Save the Children’s Mark Shriver and I wrote:
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a landmark study confirming child poverty in the United States is a solvable problem if there is the political will to address it. Written by a committee of the nation’s leading experts on child poverty, “A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty” puts forward an evidence-based policy agenda that, if prioritized and implemented by our nation’s lawmakers, would cut our child poverty rate in half within a decade.
Elections matter. Candidates for political office should offer all Americans a vision of the future direction of the country and a set of policy solutions to get us there. Through that process, children must never be treated as an afterthought.
Unfortunately, politicians often ignore the needs of children because kids don’t vote, they don’t contribute to political action committees (PACs), and they aren’t dues-paying members of organizations that hire lobbyists to push their interests.
And yet, children’s issues can be politically powerful. A number of politicians that voted to slash education funding can attest to the power of parents, teachers, and child advocates who voted them out of office.
The fact is that the 74 million children in this country are a top priority of their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their teachers, pediatricians, child care workers, and the employees of businesses that focus on and benefit from the well-being of children and families (from infants, to toddlers, to school-aged kids, and youth). And those people vote.
In an American Viewpoint poll, voters said that, if they had to make a choice, they would make the “needs of children” a greater priority than both defense spending and the “needs of the elderly.” In the latter case, voters chose the “needs of children” by a wide 51–24 percent margin. This prioritization of children was even supported by both male (43–25 percent) and female (40–26 percent) voters over the age of 60.
Voters have repeatedly demonstrated that they want children to be a priority of our nation’s policymakers. A May 2019 poll found that children’s issues were the top choice of voters, as 80 percent of Iowa voters said “improving the health, education, and wellbeing of children” was a high priority that presidential candidates need to address.
Candidates for public office must be asked to put forth an alternative vision or set of policies for children for a second term. That agenda should address the following problems:
- Rising rates of uninsured children for the first time in two decades;
- Increasing rates of youth suicide;
- Unacceptably high infant and maternal mortality;
- Rising child abuse and neglect;
- Rates of child poverty that remain 54 percent greater than that for adults;
- Growing child homelessness;
- Increasing number of school shootings;
- Climate change;
- Threats to DREAMers and their future;
- The separation of asylum-seeking children from their parents and the placement of children in detention centers; and,
- Failing to prioritize children in the federal budget process so that today the federal share of spending on children is at an all-time low.
To enable the dreams and aspirations of the next generation, it is well past time to mobilize a national movement in support of children. In the book, Who Speaks for America’s Children? The Role of Child Advocates in Public Policy, Theda Skocpol and Jullian Dickert argue:
A revitalized movement for children and families in America will depend on the ability of advocates to find new ways to link their efforts nationally and across state and local lines, and to reach out more effectively to parents and communities.
Let’s resolve to make children a greater national priority today and into the future. Parents, child advocates, and all adults that work with or care about the well-being of children must work together to demand change.
As a first step, child advocates must stop selling ourselves short. Child advocates are notorious for compromising with ourselves, watering down requests so as not to “bother” politicians or their staffs, allowing non-kid groups that do not prioritize or fully understand the unique needs of children to carry our agenda, and shying away from asking politicians to support children unless we know it will likely be supported.
The latter is self-fulfilling. Failing to push for change is the opposite of being an advocate. If you don’t bother to ask for policy change or funding, it will never happen. Policymakers might ignore us or say “no” to our requests, but they will never say “yes” unless they are at least asked. We cannot back away from demanding positive change and progress for our kids.
At First Focus on Children and the First Focus Campaign for Children, we are working on ways to empower voices for children and hold candidates and politicians more accountable. Here are seven examples:
- Children’s Network: We are working on the building a formal Children’s Network of advocates across the country to be voices for children in the halls of Congress and state capitols.
- Children’s Budget Coalition: We have created our annual Children’s Budget to help track whether the President and Congress value and invest in children, and we work with more than 80 cross-sector national organizations to make children a national priority through the federal budget and appropriations process.
- Children’s Agenda: Before each new session of Congress, we work closely with child advocacy organizations and people across the country to develop a comprehensive proactive agenda for children to present to the President and Congress. A number of bills in Congress have come from this compilation of public policy proposals that would improve the lives of children.
- Bill Tracker: We have created a federal Bill Tracker to capture all the key congressional votes and bills so that child advocates in D.C. and across the country can see what legislators are doing (or not doing) in real time on key legislation before the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
- Champions for Children: At the close of each year, we go through all the key votes, bill introductions, and bill cosponsorships related to children for our Legislative Scorecard. We publicly release the report so that child advocates, legislators, and the media can see which legislators are Champions and Defenders of Children and which lawmakers are failing children.
- Children’s Week: During the week of June 14–20, First Focus Campaign for Children, in partnership with members of the Children’s Budget Coalition, will sponsor our third annual Children’s Week to raise awareness on Capitol Hill and on social media about key children’s policy concerns and needs. If Capitol Hill is still shut down, our efforts will likely include a series of webinars, tweet chats, and other social media efforts.
- Commit To Kids Campaign: We are working to roll-out a “Commit To Kids” Campaign to ask people across all aspects of society to make a commitment to the future of our children. Stay turned for that.
We urge child advocates and partner organizations to use and add to these resources to help us all hold our political leaders accountable for their actions on issues of importance to children.
Children deserve nothing less, and frankly, it is in the interest of all of us.
As President John F. Kennedy once said:
Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.