Our Children’s Champions, Defenders, and Failures in Congress
First Focus Campaign for Children just released our 2021 Champions for Children Legislative Scorecard, which analyzed the sponsors of over 300 pieces of legislation in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and a dozen key votes to identify the 120 top Champions and Defenders of Children. The report also identifies the eight Members of Congress who are tragically failing children by being the worst performing members in the Legislative Scorecard.
Children are not allowed to vote in our democracy, so they must depend on adults to be their champions and protect their health, education, safety, and well-being. At a time when every single aspect of the lives of children has been threatened by the global COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring economic downturn, kids need the adults in society to take actions to help them achieve their greatest hopes and dreams and to ensure the future success of our nation. This is in all of our interest.
Unfortunately, children have historically been treated as an afterthought among policymakers. Research in social stereotyping by Steven Neuberg, et al., find that certain populations, such as children, who are “generally low in power and status,” are “especially likely to be invisible,” particularly in comparison to high status groups.
Political scientists Anne L. Schneider, and Helen M. Ingram have found that policymakers adopt “anticipatory feedback strategies” to prioritize policies and allocate resources to more politically powerful groups and to punish groups deemed to be unworthy. With respect to “dependents,” they find children evoke sympathy and compassion, and therefore, elicit “promises” and “positive-sounding rhetoric” but “few if any material gains.”
Due to the vulnerability and dependence of children, they also sometimes find themselves subjects of what Charles Piece and Gail Allen have referred to as “childism” or “the automatic presumption of superiority of any adult over any child” that results in “authoritative, unilateral decisions” by some adults toward children.
On New Year’s Eve in 2018, the Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz described how children’s concerns and needs (both domestically and internationally) are often invisible or ignored in policy debates before the White House and Congress. She writes:
The mistreatment or disregard of American and foreign children at the hands of the United States is not a new problem…. When issues from guns to immigration to health care to foreign affairs are viewed through the lens of how they affect children, it becomes clear the young are an afterthought when it comes to public policy.
This must change.
The purpose of the Legislative Scorecard is to: (1) overcome the structural barriers children face on Capitol Hill and highlight the impact that public policy (including non-action) has on kids and the families who care for them; (2) alert lawmakers to key policy issues before Congress (both pro and con) and, along with our Bill Tracker, give child advocates additional tools to help raise awareness about how pieces of legislation before Congress impact children; (3) hold lawmakers accountable for these actions in support or opposition to those priorities; and, (4) thank lawmakers that make children a priority in their work and push others to do better by our kids.
2021’s Champions and Defenders of Children in Congress and the White House
Between 2016 and 2020, the share of federal spending on children dropped from 10.21% to 7.64%. The Trump Administration and Congress failed to prioritize children in their work, and in some cases, actively targeted children for disproportionate cuts. When not actively harming kids, as Itkowitz noted, kids were largely an afterthought.
For example, in 2019, Fatherly’s Lizzy Francis highlighted how, despite the presence of a number of bipartisan bills in Congress, there was not a single bill of major significance and focus on children that was even voted on in the U.S. Senate.
Fortunately, that changed in 2021. After taking office in January of last year, President Biden and members of the 117th Congress recognized that children and their families were suffering as a result of the global pandemic and economic recession. They actively worked to pass the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, which was the most significant short-term investment in children in decades.
ARP made long overdue investments in family economics, education, early childhood, child care, family medical leave, child nutrition, and health care. As a result, the share of federal spending dedicated to children rose from its lowest level of 7.64% in 2020 during the last year of the Trump Administration to a high of 11.15% in 2021.
Due to the investments made by that legislation, including an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, child poverty was reduced by 40 percent (see analysis by the Urban Institute and a report by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University) and child hunger was significantly reduced.
These investments in the Child Tax Credit were made because of the years of work done by Champions and Defenders of Children like Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Richard Neal (D-MA), and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Ron Wyden (D-OR), and Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who made children and families a top priority and tirelessly pushed for the inclusion of the Child Tax Credit in the ARP package.
Over three decades ago, the 1991 bipartisan National Commission on Children’s report recommended that the Child Tax Credit be established and made fully refundable. Although the Child Tax Credit was initially created in 1997, it took until 2021 (another 24 years) to make it fully refundable and the leaders of that package are appropriately recognized and appreciated for their long, tireless work as recognized Champions and Defenders of Children.
So yes, leadership matters and, if we want to make progress for our nation’s children, it should be recognized, encouraged, and affirmed. The Legislative Scorecard expressly asks and answers the question, “Who’s for kids, and who’s just kidding?”
Booker (D-NJ) and Hayes (D-CT) Are the Top Champions for Children in 2021
As priorities change with each Congress, different members of the House and Senate rise to the top in the Legislative Scorecard. For 2021, the top Senate and House members were Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jahana Hayes (D-CT), respectively. We wish to give them both special recognition for their outstanding support of children in 2021.
The Gender Gap Persists: Women are 2.1 Times More Likely to Be Champions/Defenders
The Legislative Scorecard also tells us a great deal about who and where support is coming. For example, women in Congress were 2.1 times more likely to be a Champion or Defender of Children than their male peers in 2021. This is down from a 2.7-to-1 margin in 2020, but women continue to fare much better on the Legislative Scorecard than men.
In the House of Representatives, women represent about one-quarter of the membership, but 13 of the top 15 (86.7%) House Champions for Children were women. In contrast, of the 100 worst performing House members on the Legislative Scorecard, 86 (86%) were men.
If we ever are to be successful in improving child policy and outcomes for children, men in Congress must do better by our kids.
Partisanship, Too Often, Overrides Support for Child and Family Policy Improvements
Child advocates fully recognize that partisan politics are a fact of life on Capitol Hill, but children’s policy issues have historically engendered efforts to find common ground and carve out bipartisan support. Landmark legislation, such as Head Start, the Child Tax Credit, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) have all had strong bipartisan support over the years.
Unfortunately, the trend of increasing polarization in Congress has been detrimental to child and family policy. However, as this report demonstrates, there remain a number of bills and policy areas in which bipartisan support continues. We urge Congress to take action on many of the bills listed in our report. Our children and their future should be a place in which we strive to find that common ground.
Children’s Week begins today and runs through June 18th. During this week in particular (but every week throughout the year), we urge Members of Congress to put aside their partisan differences and get legislation passed to improve child well-being. There is a litany of options in this report from which to choose.
The Regional Divide for Children
First Focus Campaign for Children’s Legislative Scorecard also identifies significant differences in support for our nation’s children by region.
- The Northeast continues to lead all regions: 40% of House and Senate members (48 members in total) from the Northeast (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware) were Champions or Defenders of Children in 2021.
Top-ranked Champions from the region include: Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Susan Collins (R-ME), and Reps. Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Grace Meng (D-NY), Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), James McGovern (D-MA), Richard Neal (D-MA), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Jamie Raskin (D-MD), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).
- The West continues to place second: The Western region (Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada) led all regions in the 2019 report but now 27% of its House and Senate members (32 in total) were Champions or Defenders of Children.
Top-ranked Champions from the region include: Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Karen Bass (D-CA), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Nanette Barragan (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Judy Chu (D-CA), Ro Khanna (D-CA), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA).
- The Midwest has fallen a bit: In 2020, 24% of House and Senate members (17 in total) in the Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri) qualified as Champions or Defenders of Children but that number dropped to 14% in 2021.
Top-ranked Champions from the region include: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Richard Durbin (D-IL), and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Gwen Moore (D-WI), Danny Davis (D-IL), Andre Carson (D-IN), Mark Pocan (D-WI).
- The Southeast moved out of the basement: In 2020, the Southeast (Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas) had a paltry 5% qualify as Champions or Defenders. That percentage rose to 13% in 2021, as the members recognized from the region increased from 7 to 16.
Top-ranked Champions from the region include: Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and Reps. Nikema Williams (D-GA), Darren Soto (D-FL), Kathy Castor (D-FL), Bobby Scott (D-VA), Alma Adams (D-NC), and Steve Cohen (D-TN).
- The Southwest and Plains states are lagging far behind: The Southwest (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas) and Plains states (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota) states keep falling behind, with only 7% of their members (just 7 out of 99) qualifying as were Champions or Defenders.
Top-ranked Champions from the region include: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Reps. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).
Are Certain States More Likely to Elect “Pro-Child” Politicians or Demand that Lawmakers Support Children?
Furthermore, the Annie E. Casey Foundation issues an annual report it calls KIDS COUNT, which uses various indicators of child well-being to rank states on how well they perform on kids’ issues. In looking at the top, middle, and bottom third of states, according to that ranking, it is interesting to note that there appears to be a culture of support for kids in certain states that either cause them to elect “pro-child” politicians and/or that create a demand of support for children by their policymakers.
Based on the correlation between high-performing states and top lawmakers in Congress, one might surmise that the public in certain states create expectations and cultures that prioritize children’s issues and cause policymakers to be more supportive of children’s issues. In fact, the lawmakers in the top 17 KIDS COUNT states are 2.8 times more likely (32%-to-11%) to be Champions or Defenders of Children than the House and Senate members in the bottom 17 states.
- AECF Top States: The highest-ranking states in the KIDS COUNT report for 2021 were Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Vermont, Utah, New Jersey, Nebraska, Connecticut, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maine, North Dakota, Virginia, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. Of these states, 32% were Champions or Defenders.
- AECF Middle States: The states in the middle of the KIDS COUNT rankings were Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Illinois, Montana, Rhode Island, Maryland, Oregon, Hawaii, New York, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Delaware, and California. Of those states, 26% were Champions or Defenders.
- AECF Lowest States: The states at the bottom of the KIDS COUNT rankings were North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Alaska, West Virginia, Nevada, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi. Of these states, just 11% were Champions or Defenders.
The Eight Worst Members of Congress
Finally, although the First Focus Campaign for Children’s Legislative Scorecard focuses on the 120 top Champions and Defenders of Children, this begs the question as to who are the worst performing congressional members.
That dishonor in 2021 goes to the following eight House and Senate members: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Reps. Matthew Rosendale (R-MT), Chip Roy (R-TX), Ralph Norman (R-SC), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Jody Hice (R-GA), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and Lauren Boebert (R-CO).
Our kids deserve much, much better.