Our children bring us together around our aspirations for the future. Across political affiliations, we all want our children to grow into productive adults equipped to lead the nation. Whether we come from a red state or a blue state, we want to leave our children a future that energizes their potential and enables prosperity for a new generation. The next President and Congress will be judged in no small part by how well they advance these aspirations.
At the same time, however, many of us are not entirely clear on the federal government’s current role in ensuring the health, safety, education, security and opportunity for the next generation. Child policy issues often receive little discussion within campaigns and elections—by voters, candidates or the press.
This is not because candidates and the public do not care deeply about these issues. They do. Rather, it is because these issues have seldom been ones around which there is disagreement or debate that would make them important to the electoral decision-making process. The result of this “benign neglect,” however, has been that the pressing needs of children have not been the subject of the public discourse needed in a democracy to reach consensus and address them.
In fact, raising child policy issues to greater prominence—getting “children’s issues elected”— can be a way to re-orient our political process toward common concerns and practical solutions.
While literally hundreds of millions of dollars will be expended in the last days of the campaign on 30-second television commercials to sway the most undecided and least informed voters, this will not produce a more informed constituency or help set a public direction for policy action. In fact, it’s likely to contribute to greater cynicism about the political system and its ability to raise and address issues important to the public.
What happens now, well before those closing days of the campaign, can establish the framework for the election that establishes a different tone and result. Children’s issues are not the only issues that are important in electing candidates for office, but they are issues that demand dialogue and public attention.
This guide is designed to provide candidates, child advocates and voters with a starting point for raising children’s issues in the 2012 federal elections. It is designed to open the discussion—not to present answers or solutions. By starting from this base, it is designed to enlist thoughtful responses and proposals across the political spectrum as part of the electoral process. Candidates, child advocates and voters themselves all can use the information in this guide to play their role in ensuring that the electoral process does right by our children and for our future.
Current Federal Role in Child Policy
America prizes individual rights and responsibilities and recognizes the fundamental role of parents to raise their children. Parents are their children’s first and most important teachers, nurses, safety officers, counselors and mentors.
At the same time, no one in this country has ever made it alone. Our nation was formed in recognition of our interdependence. Americans understand we have a collective responsibility to ensure “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all—and that this responsibility is greatest for children, who are dependent on others to provide for their needs.
Currently, the federal government assumes a primary role in providing for the safety and security of seniors and persons with disabilities, particularly through Medicare and Social Security, which provide the same benefits regardless of where individuals live. This is a major part of the federal budget.
The federal government shares responsibility for ensuring the health, safety, education, security and opportunity of children with state and local governments—with a particular emphasis on addressing the needs of the most vulnerable children. Although smaller than the share going to seniors and persons with disabilities, activities focused on children comprise a significant part of federal investments and attention, and are described next.
Good health and sound nutrition are critical to child well-being. The federal government shares responsibility with states for financing health insurance coverage to children in families without employer-based coverage nor sufficient financial resources to secure it. As health insurance costs have risen and employer-based family coverage declined, the two federal programs providing health services for children—Medicaid and the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—have come to cover one-third of all U.S. children. In addition, the federal government has promoted public-health and health-prevention activities, with the maternal and child health block grant specifically devoted to the healthy development of very young children. Through food and nutrition programs, it addresses malnutrition, hunger and obesity.
While most families provide loving and safe homes for their children, some are unable to or do not. The federal government shares responsibility with the states in preventing or stopping the maltreatment of children at the hands of their parents—whether through physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect. Since 1935, the federal government has provided funding and direction to states to protect children from abuse and neglect, with the three-fold goals of safety, permanence and well-bring. While initially most federal funding was devoted to providing foster-care placements when children were removed from their homes, the federal government has increasingly supported efforts to support adoptions, support youth in foster care transitioning to adulthood, and strengthen and preserve families by removing the risk without removing the child.
Children Ready For Success in School
States and local school districts provide primary funding for public education, but the federal government provides additional support and regulatory guidance focused on children who require compensatory services or have special educational needs. Through the Education and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal government provides funding support to one in five primary and secondary education students. Through Pell grants and federal tax credits, the federal government works to make higher education affordable to students who otherwise could not afford that education. In addition, the federal government focuses attention on young children’s educational development. That effort started in 1965 with the establishment of the Head Start program and extends today to other early childhood services, including home visiting and early care and education.
Since the funding sources for education and development are very different depending on the age of the child, the analysis of the federal government’s role in education provided in this guide is described separately for the earliest learning years (birth to five) and the elementary and secondary school years (six to 17).
Economically Secure Children
Children need housing, clothing, food and other necessities. Families are responsible for meeting those basic needs, but not all families, even when employed full-time, have the means to do so. In American society, children are the age group most likely to be in poverty, and we know poverty limits children’s health, safety, education and opportunity. In the 1960s through 1980s, the primary federal approach to addressing poor children’s economic needs was through welfare payments to families under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.
Primarily through welfare reform and tax policies, the federal role has shifted its emphasis to providing temporary assistance to support families in getting into and staying in the workforce, rather than remaining at home to care for their children. This includes child care for lower-income working families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) for basic nutrition needs, and the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit to recognize the cost of raising a family. Substantial federal support has also been provided to improve child-support enforcement and ensure that both parents contribute to meeting a child’s basic needs.
Children with Equal Opportunities for Success
America prides itself on being an egalitarian society and a land of opportunity. The demographics in America are changing, and children are leading the way. Nationally, while four in five seniors and two in three working-age adults are white and non-Hispanic, only half of children birth-to-four are white and non-Hispanic. By the year 2025, there will be no “majority” group among American children.
This creates new challenges and opportunities for states and the federal government in ensuring the health, safety, education, security and opportunity for children. The growth in diversity of America’s population is most apparent in the child population, but varies substantially across states, regions and neighborhoods. Nationally, one in five students is or was an English-language learner, but this varies widely by school district and has been subject to profound changes in very short periods of time.
While many policies regarding children and families are made at the state and local levels, states and localities with high proportions of low-income children or experiencing dramatic changes in their demographics often do not have resources within their jurisdictions to address these issues. There is huge variation among states in fiscal capacity and the presence of low-income children. In most of the programs identified above, the federal government has sought to play the national role of providing greater equality of resources across the country, so where children are born does not dictate how well they succeed. In all areas of policy, but particularly child policy, the federal government plays a role in establishing a foundation of support for all children where states cannot be expected to do it alone.
Children in Nurturing Families
Broad agreement exists that strong families are the foundation of a prosperous nation. There is also strong public reluctance to intrude into the primacy of the family in raising children. At the same time, the current rates of divorce and single parenting affect children’s overall health. Research is clear on the critical importance of nurturing to healthy child development and the primary role of the family in providing stability, continuity, and nurturing. While there is limited funding directed specifically toward strengthening or preserving families, many federal programs include provisions designed to address concerns about the family, including recent emphases upon fatherhood and support for faith-based initiatives.
The Federal Role and Challenges Ahead
The federal government’s overall role in promoting the public good is being debated intensely today. But there is agreement on the need to reduce the size of the federal deficit and to do so through financing only those services that meet a broad public purpose— but there has not been agreement about where those reductions should be made.
Federal investments in services to children represent a significant share of the non-defense budget under examination for reduction. Overall the federal government invests nearly $400 billion annually, mostly in partnership with state and local governments, for programs to improve health, safety, education, security and opportunity for America’s children—about one-third of all public (federal, state and local) investments in these areas.
The purpose behind investing in children is to ensure the health, safety, education, security and opportunity of the next generation. While there may be disagreement on how this purpose can be achieved, there is broad consensus across the political spectrum that this is a fundamental purpose for government. The best way to develop federal policies that achieve these ends is to assure that discussions on the role of the federal government—on child health, safety, education, security and opportunity—are an explicit part of candidate platforms, media discussion and analysis and electoral activities—so the electorate is informed and involved in setting the course for security America’s future. The next sections provide more detail on these areas and current federal policy.