The Kids Aren’t Alright: Invest in Their Now and Their Future

Last updated: 10-10-2020

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The Kids Aren’t Alright: Invest in Their Now and Their Future

We are failing our children. If we care about the future of our country, we can and must do better.

On a whole range of indicators of child well-being, U.S. children are not doing well. The United States has one of the highest rates of child poverty among Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) countries, the percentage of uninsured children is rising for the first time in two decades, the U.S. ranks 33rd out of 36 OECD countries on infant mortality, suicide rates among children are rising dramatically, the number of homeless children is growing, child hunger is rising, etc.

This is all being exacerbated by a global pandemic and economic recession that is disrupting every aspect of the lives of children.

A report by the United Health Fund estimates that, in just New York State, 4,200 children out of New York’s 4 million children (a rate of 1 in 1,000) have experienced a parental or caregiver death due to COVID-19, an estimated 1 million children have been impacted by parental job loss, an estimated 325,000 children are newly in or near poverty, and an estimated 77,000 additional teens are now unemployed compared to historical rates, an estimated 200,000–250,000 additional children are at risk of being evicted from their homes, and at least 130,000 children are newly food insecure. This is just the story from one of our 50 states.

If we made investments in the future of children, we would save money in the long term. For example, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reported that child poverty is costing our nation between $800 billion and $1.1 trillion annually. Investments in child health, early childhood, and education have life-long positive impacts.

Unfortunately, as Children’s Budget 2020 finds, the overall federal share of investments in children dropped from 8.19 percent in fiscal year (FY) 2016 to just 7.48 percent in FY 2020. This represents a 9 percent decrease in the share of federal spending dedicated to children over the period.

The problem is systemic and the long-term trend is disturbing if nothing changes. In fact, the Urban Institute’s Kids’ Share 2020 report is quite pessimistic about future investments in children. They estimate that, if the budget were to stay on its present course, children will only receive 2 percent of all new federal spending over the next ten years. This stands in sharp contrast to the projected increases of 71 percent for senior citizens and 18 percent for interest on the national debt between now and 2030.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden likes to quote his father as saying, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Clearly, we are not valuing our children.

Moreover, the current budget process is stacked against children, and some want to make it even worse. For example, the Trump Administration’s budget proposal for FY 2021 requested a number of harmful funding cuts and policy changes that would further erode the federal share of spending on children to just 7.32 percent. This represents a single-year cut of $21 billion to children’s programs on an inflation-adjusted basis, as the president’s budget request would completely eliminate or slash and block grant 59 separate programs for children.

This year’s Children’s Budget includes, for the first time, a deeper analysis of how the federal budget impacts children in spending when it comes to our international affairs budget, which is spent across seven departments and agencies, including the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). We estimate the children’s share of that spending at around 9 percent and find that this funding is so limited it only reflects about 0.11 percent of the overall federal budget. These dollars are dedicated to helping address the global needs of children.

The needs of children vastly exceed the funding provided. As UNICEF reports:

For children in the U.S. and across the world, we can and must do better.

Due to the reality that corporations, membership organizations, 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. To create a government that will pay attention to, be more responsive to, and better serve the needs of children, we must engage in advocacy and vote with the interests of children at the forefront.

Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, explains:

The current environment certainly does not make that easy. But as Meacham points out:

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, children are being treated as an afterthought or, even worse, as bargaining chips to further a political agenda. During the current pandemic and recession, the federal government failed to plan for or provide the necessary funding to help our nation’s schools and child care centers accept returning students safely and help parents return to work.

Neglect was just part of the problem. A recent New York Times article documented how White House officials pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to downplay the science related to the risks of sending children back to the classroom. With children returning to classrooms, we have witnessed a recent surge of coronavirus cases among children.

A former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, Olivia Troye, said:

We all should have a problem with that.

And earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy in May 2018 included two conference calls where Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein ordered concerned U.S. attorneys along to the U.S.-Mexico border to prosecute all undocumented immigrants even if resulted in children being removed from their parents.

The article adds that deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein told the U.S. attorneys that it did not matter how young the children were and that lawyers should not refuse to prosecute cases because children happened to be infants.

As Nick Kristof says, cruelty was the point.

If we hope to emerge from what columnist Catherine Rampell has referred to as a “war on children,” we should respect science, listen to the words and needs of children and families, and work together on ways to build a better America and a better world for our kids. Rather than neglect and cruelty, policymakers must be held to the standard that the “best interests of children” must govern any and all policy that impacts children.

In November, we will have 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, school boards, and ballot measures. 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.”

Children, their well-being, and their future are on the ballot. We must push for candidates to put forth a positive agenda to improve the lives of children and educate our friends and neighbors so they fully understand what is at stake for kids. We must make children’s issues part of that debate and urge policymakers at every level of government to be Champions for Children and to #Commit2Kids.

Despite disadvantages because kids don’t vote and don’t have political action committees, children’s issues are 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 during this past election. In the 2018 election, more than 1,000 educators were elected to political office across the country.

The fact is that the 74 million children in this country are a top priority for educators, their parents, their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, 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.

American voters support a children’s investment agenda. In a past 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.

Furthermore, 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 well-being of children” was a high priority that presidential candidates need to address.

To enable the dreams and aspirations of the next generation, we must work together to demand change and that children no longer be treated as an afterthought.

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.

Furthermore, we must vote for and elect more Champions for Children like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who understand that investing in children is in all of our interest. As Sen. Booker said:

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 eight examples:

• Children’s Budget Coalition: We use data from our Children’s Budget reports and work with more than 80 cross-sector national organizations to make children a national priority through the federal budget and appropriations process and to ask policymakers to #InvestInKids.

• 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.

• Push for Systemic Change: Our government is not working for our children and we must systemically change the way it operates to ensure that the needs and voices of children are fully heard and addressed. Among other things, we are pushing for:

· The creation of an independent Children’s Commissioner, like those in many nations across the world, to gather data, research, and report on policy changes that would improve the lives of children, help lift up the voices and needs of kids themselves, and assist in holding government accountable;

· The establishment of a White House Office on Children and Youth that would raise and coordinate policy improvements of importance to children;

· The development of a Child Poverty Target to make a national commitment to cut child poverty in half in ten years;

· The establishment of Child Impact Statements within the government so that the needs of children are no longer an afterthought in the development of public policy, rules, and regulations; and,

· The formation of a Children’s Budget to fully report on government investments (and disinvestments) in children.

• Bill Tracker and Legislative Scorecard: We have created a federal Bill Tracker and Legislative Scorecard to capture all the key Congressional bills and votes so that child advocates in D.C. and across the country can see what legislators are doing (and not doing) in real time on key legislation before the U.S. House of Representatives and the 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 First Focus Campaign for Children Legislative Scorecard. We publicly release the report so that child advocates, legislators, and the media can see which lawmakers are Champions and Defenders of Children and which of them are failing children.

• Children’s Week: During the week of June 13–19, 2021, the First Focus Campaign for Children, in partnership with members of the Children’s Budget Coalition, will sponsor our fourth annual Children’s Week to raise awareness on Capitol Hill and on social media about key children’s policy concerns and needs.

• #Commit2Kids Campaign: We are asking individuals and lawmakers to make a commitment to the future of our children. This will be an ongoing #Commit2Kids campaign that can be found at

• Ambassadors for Children: We are working on building a formal grassroots network of advocates across the country to be voices for children in the halls of Congress and state capitols.

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.

The kids aren’t alright. If we truly value them, we must invest in their futures. Children deserve nothing less, and frankly, it is in the interest of all of us.

To once again quote President John F. Kennedy:

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