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Congress Must Protect TANF in debt ceiling talks

| May 16, 2023 |

Extensive research shows that tax credits and cash transfers influence positive parent-child interactions, improve child development outcomes, and have a bigger impact than any other policy in reducing child poverty. A 2019 landmark study from the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, found that cash assistance improves children’s long-term health and educational and economic outcomes both by increasing access to resources that support children’s healthy development and by reducing household stress, giving parents and caregivers more mental and emotional bandwidth for their children. For families in crisis, timely cash assistance can provide the support that parents need to reunify with their children — or keep them from entering the child welfare system to begin with.

Since the expiration of the 2021 improvements to the Child Tax Credit (CTC), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program has been the only federal program providing monthly cash assistance to families with very low incomes. TANF is a children’s program — more than 70% of TANF recipients are children. TANF provides critical assistance to millions of children and families, through cash assistance as well as funding for child care, state tax credits, food banks and other aid.

While TANF cash assistance is a lifeline for those households with children that receive it — helping parents and caretakers afford food, rent, diapers and other staples — it fails to reach many kids in need. In 2020, for every 100 families in poverty, just 21 received TANF assistance. TANF’s rules allow state officials to set narrow parameters for program eligibility and impose strict work requirements and arduous administrative burdens on program participation. State officials can spend TANF dollars on a wide variety of items outside of cash assistance or work supports, and many do. As a fixed block grant, TANF funding does not automatically increase to meet greater need during times of economic crisis. Finally, because it is not indexed to inflation, TANF’s value has decreased over time and the program has not received an increase in federal funding since its creation in 1996. As a result of these restrictions, very few low-income families with children receive TANF cash assistance, and those that do often receive very low levels of assistance.

It is therefore critical that Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration work to protect and improve the TANF program to reach more families with children in need. Yet instead, House leadership recently passed a debt ceiling bill (H.R. 2811) that would likely further limit the number of children in families that receive TANF assistance by significantly limiting states’ flexibility in implementing work requirements and delivering cash assistance and employment services. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that almost 1 million children could be at risk of losing TANF assistance if Congress enacts these provisions.

Numerous studies have shown that rather than fostering economic mobility, work requirements prevent parents and caretakers from accessing assistance, piling burdens on struggling families and increasing disparities for those in marginalized communities. A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty also found that “work requirements are at least as likely to increase as to decrease poverty.” The racist roots of work requirements for benefit programs extend far back into our nation’s history, starting with the slave trade and continuing today, as racist stereotypes persist about Black and other people of color’s willingness to work. Documenting work is especially onerous for low-wage workers, disproportionately workers of color, who often have no control over their schedules and whose hours may vary from week to week.

Work requirements also do not account for uncompensated childrearing and caretaking of family members, work that produces large benefits to the collective whole. Grandparents caring for grandchildren, or parents caring for children with disabilities or special health care needs face particular barriers to economic security.

Protect TANF, along with Medicaid, SNAP, and Other Spending on Children

The U.S. House of Representatives’ recent passage of H.R. 2811 uses the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip for extremely harmful changes to TANF, along with Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  To add insult to injury, the bill includes deep spending cuts to non-defense discretionary spending. The United States already underinvests in our children — as First Focus on Children’s annual Children’s Budget shows, children do not receive their fair share of government funds. Lawmakers must protect funding for children’s programs along with those programs that benefit low-income seniors and adults.

We urge members of Congress and President Biden to avoid any steps that would increase poverty, including child poverty, by rejecting provisions in H.R. 2811 that would weaken children’s access to cash assistance, health care and nutrition assistance in TANF, Medicaid, and SNAP. Lawmakers also must reject across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending programs that serve children. These proposed crushing spending cuts and policy changes would cause severe harm to the health, safety, and well-being of our children, families, and people in need around the country, and would ask our most vulnerable populations to shoulder the nation’s debt. 

Title 42 ends, but children still in danger

| May 11, 2023 |

Will we measure success by how many we reject or how many we protect?

Today, at 11:59 pm, the Title 42 policy put in place by the Trump Administration and engineered for the indiscriminate expulsion of children, families and individuals seeking safety, will finally end.

For more than three years, First Focus on Children has advocated for this day. We joined other child advocates in a letter urging the Biden Administration to end this abuse of federal law that inflicted harm on children. We sadly marked its anniversary. We applauded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when they terminated the order that put the policy in place, though that was over a year ago now. It is well past time to end Title 42.

This cannot be a day of rejoicing, but a day to mourn that for over three years, children, families, and individuals were denied our nation’s promise to allow those fleeing persecution and violence to “breathe free.” While unaccompanied children were eventually exempt from the policy, Title 42 has been used 2.8 million times to turn away individuals and children in families. According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) received through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Cato Institute, between March 2020 and May 31 2022, the U.S. government expelled 125,000 children under Title 42 — including over 30,000 children and infants — and almost a third of those expulsions occurred after midnight. The policy has repeatedly put children and families in danger, with more than 13,000 reports of violent attacks recorded during President Biden’s term alone. Under Title 42, thousands of children have been separated from family. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recommended in January 2022 that the U.S. immediately end Title 42 because the policy “compels” family separation. Title 42 fueled chaos at the border by enabling repeated crossings and further exploitation by criminal organizations. In June 2022, 50 people tragically lost their lives in San Antonio because Title 42 was a failed policy that denied people a safe way to seek entry to the United States. In short, Title 42 was deadly.  

Unfortunately, the end of Title 42 does not immediately restore a full and fair asylum system. In the very first week of this year, the Biden Administration announced “new border enforcement actions” that favor failed, deterrence-based policies over orderly and humane restoration of a protection that our laws have provided for decades. While this announcement included limited additional pathways for those seeking safety to come to the United States, it did so at the expense of a full and fair process for children and families to make their claims for protection by expanding expedited processing at the border and requiring arriving children and families to make an appointment on a mobile app to approach the border. The Biden Administration followed up this announcement with a proposed asylum ban that will punish children, which First Focus on Children vehemently opposed. That rule has been finalized. The Administration also plans to expand expedited processing at the border, which will deny children in families a fair chance to make claims for protection. While the Biden Administration has also announced expansions to refugee resettlement and parole programs to allow family reunification and safe pathways to the United States, those cannot replace the legal right to seek asylum at our border. Instead of taking the opportunity to build a legacy of restoring welcome for children and families fleeing danger, the Administration is relying on failed policies that ensure harm.

Some members of Congress are also working to pass dangerous policies in response to Title 42’s end. House committees have considered border bills that would enshrine harm to children as the law of the land. Even today as Title 42 ends, the House is expected to vote on a bill that would embrace bans, bars, and jails for children and families seeking safety.

We cannot forget that each child and family arriving has a face, a name, a story. Many of the children and families coming to the United States have experienced persecution, torture, trafficking, and abuse in their home countries or on the journey to find safety. For them, coming to the U.S. border is a lifeline. The cost of denying them the opportunity to seek safety is too great — both for them and for the soul of our nation. Our country has a long and proud tradition of welcoming children, families, and individuals who need protection from persecution, violence, and torture. Communities around the country have already welcomed children and families seeking protection, and they will continue to welcome them. Three-fourths of Americans — regardless of political affiliation — agree that our country should provide asylum to people fleeing persecution and violence. Policymakers must follow their lead and hold to our values of welcome and a fair opportunity to build a new and safe life. 

When policies focus on children, which the American people believe all federal policies must do, common-sense, workable solutions emerge to give all people a meaningful process to seek protection. Policies must:

  • Welcome and process children, families, and individuals seeking asylum in a manner that keeps families together, provides humanitarian assistance, and connects them with government-supported organizations providing shelter, reception, and support to reach final destinations
  • Allow children and their families to pursue their immigration cases in the community with access to community-based services that help them understand the immigration system and recover from their trauma
  • Grant children and families a fair opportunity to make their claim for protection within a meaningful timeframe, and with legal and social services to develop their immigration case.

We are now at the “after Title 42” stage of our history. The question remains: Does our nation now become a country that measures success based on the number of people we reject, or the number of people we protect?

WATCH: Advocates Rally for #CareNotCuts

| April 26, 2023 |

Faith leaders, service providers, and advocates joined members of Congress today in holding a rally and press conference opposing the House budget plan. The speakers will talk about the impact the House budget plan will have on individuals and communities across the country, pointing to how the proposal would take away nutrition assistance, health care, and housing assistance away from those who need it.  Members of Congress have been invited and Bruce Lesley from First Focus will speak about the specific harm to kids under this budget approach – speaker list below. You are encouraged to join the rally and participate on social media during the rally.

First Focus President Bruce Lesley Remarks

Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus Campaign for Children was proud to speak alongside leaders from the Coalition on Human Needs, Caring Across Generations, FRAC (Food Research Action Center), Americans for Tax Fairness, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and many others. During the rally, he delivered the following remarks:

First Focus Campaign for Children opposes the debt ceiling bill in the House. It is nonsensical to – in the name of the next generation – make 22% across-the-board cuts in funding for education, child health (including Medicaid), early childhood, child care, child nutrition, housing, child abuse prevention, and even kids in foster care.

Harming children does not help them. It is also a disaster for our nation’s future. People need Care Not Cuts. The fact is that we know investing in children works and that it has an incredible long-term return-on-investment.

The American people know it as well. In a May 2022 poll by Lake Research Partners, by a 90-8% margin, voters believe “investing in children helps improve their lives, development, and outcomes.” Moreover, by an 89-7% margin, voters believe “investing in children has a large return in a health society and a healthy economy.” The vast majority of Americans get it.

And yet, House leadership has chosen ethanol over children and families. And when it comes to the cuts, the House leadership is choosing to disproportionately cut funding to children and families, particularly those most in need. Congress should soundly reject it and stop targeting children and families for cuts.

Watch the full live stream of the rally below:

Take Action

The House of Representatives plans to vote on this bill on Wednesday, April 26th — if you would like your member of Congress to hear you before the vote, click here to be connected right now. Don’t worry — we’ll provide a call script and connect you directly to their office.

The climate crisis is not tomorrow’s problem

| April 19, 2023 |

Earth Day comes around this Saturday, April 22, and one thing is clear: The climate crisis is not tomorrow’s problem. Children today, in every corner of the country, and the world, feel its impacts first-hand. As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, our children’s air and water is continuously contaminated by polluters operating with little regard for the planet or human life. Kids bear these impacts – mentally and physically – far more than adults, creating an issue of environmental justice that threatens their well-being.

Since their physiology is significantly different from adults’, children struggle with myriad health and other concerns created by pollution, and the climate crisis and its impacts. Every consequence of our inaction, from drought to displacement, will weigh heavily on our children now and in the future. 

Last year, Congress took an historic step to combat pollution, environmental injustices, and the climate crisis by passing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and investing more than $300 billion in our children’s clean energy future. It was the most monumental investment to date, but unfortunately, still leaves gaps that force children to live in unhealthy environments and suffer the consequences of climate change. 

Here are just a few of the many ways in which environmental pressures affect children:

  1. Children’s physiology makes them more vulnerable to extreme heat: Heat waves are one of the deadliest forms of the climate crisis and contribute to more deaths caused by pre-existing diseases like asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Children’s unique physiology makes them more likely to suffer from heat stroke or die due to extreme heat. They lose fluids more quickly than adults due to their smaller size and greater surface area to mass ratio and play outside more frequently, making them more vulnerable to serious heat illness.
  2. Polluted air takes a toll on their health: Chronic exposure to polluted air causes respiratory, cardiovascular, and immune system damage and exacerbates asthma. Air pollution can cause life-long damage to children’s growing lungs, especially due to their propensity to spend more time outside. Even when indoors at school, crumbling infrastructure often means they’re exposed to mold, asbestos, and smog from school buses. 
  3. Millions of children are exposed to contaminated water: Children drink more water in relation to their body weight than adults, making them more susceptible to contaminants. Research shows that water sources at 44% of schools contain elevated levels of lead, which can lead to complications like brain and kidney damage, learning disabilities, and delayed development. Communities with inadequate water systems often find their water sources flooded with sewage, pesticides, and other contaminants during extreme weather events, made even more frequent and severe by climate change. 
  4. Natural disasters leave a lasting impact: The deadly collection of tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather took 342 lives in the US in 2022 — an aching loss felt heavily by America’s children. After disasters, children, especially those under the age of eight, are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The mental toll of extreme weather can lead to difficulty concentrating, outbursts of anger, and mental health struggles that may follow them into adulthood. 
  5. Children from low-income communities and children of color bear the brunt of the crisis: Children from these households often experience environmental injustices — a deadly form of discrimination where poor and minority communities are exposed to disproportionate amounts of pollution. Companies target these areas knowing that systematic racism and a lack of enforcement will allow them to pollute freely. Children in these areas experience higher rates of asthma, lead poisoning, certain cancers, and developmental issues. Without protection, they will continue to suffer. 

The next decade will be pivotal for our children, their children, and all of the generations to come. We can help stave off the worst of the climate crisis and create a healthier future for our kids by:

  • Committing to update school infrastructure to make sure kids have clean air and clean water
  • Supporting climate legislation that protects frontline communities and creates a sustainable future
  • Uplifting children from communities that have been left behind by environmental protection practices and centering them in our policies

Last month, Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) joined Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) to introduce the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act (H.R. 1705/S. 919) aimed at tackling some of the most pressing environmental injustices. Legislation like this bill, which puts our most vulnerable populations first, will help build our clean energy future equitably.

When we commit to our environment, we commit to our kids. Let’s keep them front and center this Earth Day.

6 ways budget cuts could impact kids

| April 14, 2023 |

As House leadership wrangles with itself over the contours of a budget proposal, one thing is clear: Cuts are coming. Members have floated proposals that would return spending to FY 2022 enacted levels (i.e. not including pandemic funding) or could go even deeper. Vows to leave Social Security and Medicare unscathed put just about every other program in the legislature’s sites. Once again, children are likely to bear the brunt of draconian measures.

Here are Six Ways Budget Cuts Could Impact Kids

1. Hunger: If levels are cut back to FY 2022 enacted, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) would lose as much as $1.4 billion. The program, projected to serve 6.5 million mothers and children in FY 2024, will be forced to waitlist participants, cutting nearly 250,000 off from benefits. Deeper cuts would only allow the program to support about 5.07 million moms and babies — about 1.2 million fewer than the FY22 monthly average.

2. Housing: A return to FY 2022 enacted levels would cut the Department of Agriculture’s rental assistance program by $325 million. The Rental Assistance Program helps eligible low-income tenants in USDA-financed multi-family housing pay no more than 30% of their incomes for rent and currently serves approximately 288,000 tenants. The House leadership’s planned reduction would cause between 40,000 and 63,000 current recipients to lose rental assistance. The average annual income of families and individuals receiving rental assistance (generally female-headed households, elderly, and the disabled) is approximately $12,501.

These cuts would also reduce benefits under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) from $529 to $501 (just over half the amount needed to heat the average home with natural gas and less than 25% of the amount needed to heat the average home with heating oil).  Nearly 260,000 households would lose benefits, leaving these households dangerously unable to heat their homes.

3. Education: A reduction to the FY 2022 enacted level would cut funding from multiple programs. Low-income students and students with disabilities would lose 13,000 teachers. Deeper cuts would remove as many as 60,000 teachers from classrooms.

4. Child Care and Early Education: Young children would take a huge hit under these cuts. Roughly 170,000 Head Start slots would disappear with funding rolled back to FY 2022 enacted levels, disadvantaging low-income kids. Roughly 105,000 child care slots would also vanish, adding to the nation’s child care crisis and preventing these parents from participating in the workforce.

5. Mental Health: Sharp reductions in funding would cut responses by the 988 Suicide Crisis Lifeline, stranding nearly 1 million people in the midst of a suicide, mental health or substance use crisis

6. Youth Justice: Rolling funding back to FY 2022 enacted levels would hinder reforms to the youth justice system, dropping awards to states and localities by roughly 35% and endangering progress on programs that have been shown to aid at-risk youth and reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the system.

What Does the IPCC Report Mean for Our Children?

| April 11, 2023 |

Every few years, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases a comprehensive assessment detailing the latest findings in climate science, from scientists’ worst predictions to our best hopes for adaptation. As UN Secretary General António Guterres says, the report serves as “a survival guide for humanity.” 

The Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), released in March, simultaneously offered a bleak message and profound hope. Many impacts will be unavoidable, but deep, collective action offers a chance at a liveable future. The science has spoken: This is our last chance to save our children. 

For children around the world, the situation is already dire. Children are not just small adults – their behaviors and physiology mean that they’re more susceptible to nearly every adverse effect of the climate crisis. Currently, one billion children live in countries at extremely high risk for climate change impacts. According to the report, unless we make drastic changes to our economies and energy sources and limit our warming to 2ºC, they could see:

  • A four-fold increase in the number of extreme events experienced by children born after 2010 
  • Sea-level rise that will eradicate their homes and could force more than 200 million people to relocate 
  • An additional 1.4 million children experiencing stunted growth by 2050 due to poor nutrition and decreased food availability 
  • Disruptions to school accessibility and education 
  • Increased exposure to water, food, and vector-borne diseases like malaria and cholera

Children living in a world with 2ºC of warming are less likely to survive, let alone thrive. However, the AR6’s call for action overshadows the bleak data it provides. Our window for action is closing, but for now, remains open. With quick and sustained action, we have the ability to stave off the worst of the climate crisis. First Focus on Children calls on Congress and the Biden Administration to: 

  • Protect low-income and marginalized communities and countries who will feel the impacts of the climate crisis first and worst 
  • Invest in programs that mitigate the climate crisis and slash carbon pollution 
  • Center children in their efforts to stave off climate change 

Children around the globe, not just in the U.S., feel the impact of our pollution. They bear the weight of our decisions now and in the decades to come. With wide-reaching, all-encompassing global action, we can maintain a planet that is habitable, healthy, and happy for children.
For more about First Focus on Children’s environmental health priorities, refer to our Children’s Agenda.

Work requirements work against children

| April 6, 2023 |

Photo by Filip Urban on Unsplash

Work requirements snagged the spotlight on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers began floating ideas for strengthening them as a condition of food, medical and other aid to low-income households. Many supporters of stronger work requirements have been careful to suggest they will only apply to “those without dependents” or “able-bodied…childless adults.” This sounds like it will spare people with children.

Here is the truth: Children will suffer anyway.

Let’s start with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps, which several lawmakers have squarely in their sites. SNAP currently feeds more than 14 million children. Four million of them could go hungry, as First Focus on Children’s policy experts note in this recently released brief, under current proposals to expand SNAP’s work requirements to parents and caregivers of school-age children, that is, kids 7-18 year-olds. But children will also suffer even under legislation that focuses specifically on individuals without children. The fact is that families are often complex and multi-generational, and in many cases, low-income families pool resources. Taking food from adults in the household affects everyone who sits at the table.

The word “dependents” causes part of the problem. Non-custodial caregivers — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents — may provide most of a child’s care even if they do not have legal custody. One proposal suggests raising the age for work requirements from 49 to 65, which would implicate a large number of care-taking grandparents.

Proposals requiring “adults” — people age 18 and above — to meet work requirements also would severely disadvantage children aging out of the foster care system and youth experiencing homelessness. These young people already experience high rates of unemployment and poverty and face barriers to accessing public assistance programs.

The term “work requirements” offers another thorny issueData shows that in most low-income households at least one family member has a steady job. In many cases, “work requirements” simply “require” the employed individual to document their “work,” erecting new barriers to aid for those who need it most. Low-wage earners often work an unpredictable number of hours from week to week. Many immigrant workers are paid in cash and therefore have no evidence of employment — or bosses who are unwilling to provide evidence. Many individuals are self-employed, complicating employment verification. Perhaps most important, none of these proposals consider uncompensated childrearing “work.”

Increasing work requirements will ripple through aid to children. For instance, 85 million people — including more than 34 million children — have health insurance through Medicaid, another program being considered for work requirements. Data shows that children are much more likely to be insured when the adults in their household are insured. Pandemic-era provisions that suspended disenrollment pushed the number of uninsured individuals: Just 5.4% of children were uninsured during this time. Those provisions have now ended. Federal research suggests that 74% of the kids who lose coverage now will actually still be eligible, but will be disenrolled as a result of bureaucratic red tape. Compound this red tape with the red tape of work requirements and you’ve created a fast lane to coverage loss for eligible people, with and without children.

So far, the conversation around work requirements has simply revealed the need to strengthen, not weaken, the country’s social safety net. As usual, the blunt edge of the policies under discussion will disproportionately hit children of color and families in marginalized communities. In a 2019 study, the National Academy of Sciences determined that “work requirements are at least as likely to increase as to decrease poverty.” In the post-Roe era, work requirements and other miserly policies are more likely to continue hurting children and the people who care for them. Our policy team outlines the danger of work requirements and other obstacles to services in this brief.

Supporters cite record employment and a dearth of workers as part of the rationale for work requirements. Pandemic-era assistance such as the improved Child Tax Credit showed that when you give people — especially single mothers — unrestricted aid, they will use it on child care, transportation, and other services that make it possible for them to get to work. So perhaps restricting aid is not the way to encourage more people to enter the workforce.

Then again, a growing number of states are making it easier than ever to put children themselves to work. Perhaps they can fill the gap.

Recognizing Children in the Debate Over Education and Schools

| March 31, 2023 |

As a child advocate, it is deeply frustrating to people in our community that issues of great importance to children, such as education, are rarely debated in Congress. Just a few years ago, we could not identify a single bill or vote in the U.S. Senate that was taken related to issues of importance to our nation’s children, who represent about one-quarter of the nation’s population.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives took up an education issue, H.R. 5, the Parents Bill of Rights. First Focus Campaign for Children opposes the legislation for:

  1. failing to recognize that children have a right and role to play in their education;
  2. creating significant new bureaucracy, red tape, and reporting requirements for every single public school in this country that results in funding, time, attention, and services being diverted away from educating and serving children in every single public school across this country;
  3. promoting and facilitating book bans and censorship rather than greater access to books, reading, and learning;
  4. threatening access to health care, privacy, and confidentiality of students;
  5. promoting division and animosity between parents and educators in the education of children rather than helping facilitate partnerships and greater civility between parents and educators; and,
  6. urging the reporting of “violence” in schools after the fact rather than the protection and prevention of violence to students, teachers, other educators, and school board members.

Education is a children’s issue. You would never know that from much of the House debate on H.R. 5, which often had nothing or little to do with the educational, health, nutritional, or safety needs and concerns of children. Instead, the debate often focused about the agenda of a certain set of parents and the imposition of new federally imposed mandates upon public schools across this country without a single dollar of funding to help pay for these requirements.

And yes, money matters.

If H.R. 5 were to be enacted into law, school districts would be required to respond with resources, time, and attention to the numerous new demands in the bill. Unfortunately, the supporters of the legislation failed to recognize or acknowledge that the funding, time, and attention that schools would need to spend in response to H.R. 5 would come at the direct expense of children.

Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) offered an amendment to ensure such resources would not be diverted from children. As she explained, “This is a simple, commonsense solution that removes a potentially costly barrier for school systems that are already struggling to maintain their budgets.” Sadly, her amendment was defeated by a vote of 203–217.

In addition, over 230 child advocacy organizations, parent groups, education organizations, and an array of other groups signed a letter organized by the U.S. Conference on Civil Rights and signed by First Focus Campaign for Children in opposition to H.R. 5 and in favor of H.Res.219 by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR). We were disappointed that the House of Representatives acted to pass H.R. 5 by a vote of 213–208 and turned down H.Res. 219 by a vote of 203–223.

Among the amendments, there was one offered by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) that called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education and its role in providing funding to our nation’s schools with concentrated poverty, child care, after-school programs, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Special Olympics, Education for Homeless Children and Youth, Full-Service Community Schools, GEAR UP, Impact Aid, migrant education, and TRIO.

Although the amendment fortunately failed by a vote of 161–265, it is disturbing that so many members of the House would actively choose to leave millions of the most vulnerable children and their education worse off. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the 60 Republicans and 205 Democrats who voted against the Massie Amendment.

It is also important to highlight that there were some important advocates in the House of Representatives who spoke out in support of the needs, concerns, and best interests of children in last week’s House debate.

A number of members expressed support for a larger “Children’s and Parents’ Agenda” with respect to education, the Child Tax Credit, health, nutrition, and safety for kids that is quite different from what was offered and promoted in H.R. 5, such as book bans, attacks on LGBTQ students, and new unfunded mandates upon schools.

Here is a sample of those statements in Congress in defense and support of children:

Rep. Bobby Scott (VA)

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) led the opposition to H.R. 5. There are many clips of him speaking against H.R. 5 on March 23–24 that it was impossible to pick just one. Therefore, it is important to just thank him and his staff for their leadership in opposition to H.R. 5 and for their support of H.Res. 219.

Rep. Maxwell Frost (FL)

This bill focused on parents’ rights, but what about the rights of our students? What about the rights of our young people?

… what about the kids who are gunned down in their classrooms? The leading cause of death for young people in this country is gun violence.

None of that is in this bill.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (OR)

We have put forward a substantive plan (H.Res. 129) that will actually increase the frequency, quality, and accessibility of parental involvement and engagement in schools; a substantive plan that invests in evidence-based models and support systems that have been shown to increase family engagement and improve student achievement; a substantive plan that encourages parents to be partners, not adversaries, in their children’s education; a substantive plan that roots out discrimination based on race, disability, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or gender identity in our public schools; a substantive plan that, unlike H.R. 5, doesn’t carry dangerous, authoritarian undertones encouraging book bans, discouraging the teaching of scientifically and historically accurate curricula, and leading to the micromanagement of the work of educators.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (PA)

…this bill pits parents against each other and against teachers in a way that creates more chaos and community discord. That hurts students and families, disregards talented educators, undermines public schools, and detracts from what should be our ultimate goal, providing the best possible public education for America’s children.

Rep. Mark Takano (CA)

…children have a God-given right not to be physically or emotionally harmed…. Good teachers care about their kids. Good teachers know that a relationship with parents is important. But when a home is not safe for LGBTQ kids, school becomes their safe place, and teachers need to be their cheerleaders, not their first bullies.

This bill forces good teachers to do bad things. It alienates students from their parents. It outs kids. It forces kids back into the closet. It is a fundamental invasion of privacy that puts children in danger.

Rep. Jahana Hayes (CT)

This bill will not improve educational outcomes. This bill caters to a small group of individuals who seek to impose their world views on entire school districts, on my child.

Rep. Sara Jacobs (CA)

My colleagues glaze over the causes of real violence at our Nation’s schools, like proper investments in school-based mental health programs, social, emotional, and cultural competency professional development for educators and administrators, disciplinary measures that eradicate the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and, more importantly, gun control measures to ensure that our youth are safe from school shootings.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL)

Make no mistake, H.R. 5 undermines teachers, and instead of offering students more support, it effectively denies it. The result of this law in Florida has cleared bookshelves and canceled coursework and an AP exam on African-American history.

As a mother whose children attended public schools, I speak for millions of moms when I say all we want for our children is a safe learning environment that ensures they discover the wider world, and not force them to grow into narrow-minded, ignorant adults. This legislation just hands a vocal and extreme minority of parents the power to dictate what every American child learns.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX)

Child tax credits should now be made permanent, taking care of additional childcare for those parents who are burdened, and for those who need housing, investing more so that children have roofs over their heads, as well as ensuring that no one is left alone looking for housing.

…I am against undermining vulnerable children, such as transgender children. I am against banning books, such as a book about a Black astrologist, a scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or the story of a man ultimately of peace who brought South Africa together, Nelson Mandela.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (MD)

Mr. Chair, 2 years ago, more than 1,600 books were banned in the United States of America…

It is amazing to me to see politicians who oppose a universal violent criminal background check and who defend assault weapons after the massacres at Columbine; after Parkland, Florida; at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut; after Uvalde; after Santa Fe, Texas, that they are now going to keep America’s children safe by banning “The Handmaid’s Tale’’ and “1984.’’

…we can do better for the children of America.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (WA)

So don’t tell me this is a parents’ bill of rights. This is not addressing gun violence. It is not addressing mental health. It is not addressing childcare, pre-K, and all of the other things that would be a part of a parents’ bill of rights.

Instead, we are spending time on a bill that sows doubt about public education and our teachers and also targets our very vulnerable trans kids who are absolutely no threat to anyone in this body.

Rep. Jim McGovern (MA)

This bill is going to be weaponized by far right groups and used to threaten schools with legal action if they don’t pull books off the shelves.

Rep. Joe Neguse (CO)

[Parents in Colorado] are concerned about their students — their children — coming home from school alive. They are concerned about the ability of children to be able to get a quality education and not go hungry, to not be poisoned by lead pipes in some of the dilapidated buildings in rural and urban communities across this country, and about the cost of childcare.

Mr. Speaker, that is what they are concerned about.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (FL)

This bill is nothing more than a talking point of the extreme MAGA agenda that will hurt children and hurt our schools. Let’s face it — there has been a movement to eliminate public education since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

…You will never eliminate public schools. We will fight you as long as it takes. This is all that the little children who look like me have. Public schools are the bedrock of this Nation.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY)

This flowery language of “parental rights and freedom’’ hides the sinister fact of this legislative text… It includes two provisions that require schools to out trans, nonbinary, and LGBT youth even if it would put said youth in harm’s way.

One of the highest rates of youth homelessness is in the LGBT community, from parents who want to kick their children out in households that may be unstable or abusive. For so many children of abuse, school is their only safe place to be.

Rep. Morgan McGarvey (KY)

In addition to restricting parents’ rights, H.R. 5 hurts some of our most vulnerable kids in the LGBTQ community. Why? According to the Trevor Project, one LGBTQ youth attempts suicide every 45 seconds, 45 seconds. Why?

Why are we being more cruel?

I believe that not just in politics but in life we are judged by how we treat those on the margins. My message to my colleagues is simple: Stop being mean to kids. We can be involved and be inclusive.

Normally, we warn our kids about dealing with bullies in their classrooms. We shouldn’t have to warn them about bullying from adults, too.

Rep. Angie Craig (MN)

If you want to support parents, let’s fully fund our public schools and sharpen our focus on special education programs. Let’s figure out how we recruit and retain talented teachers. Let’s get our kids and educators the mental health resources they desperately need.

House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (NY)

…every single child should have access to a high-quality, first-rate education.

…every single child throughout America should learn reading, writing, and arithmetic at the highest level possible.

…every single child should be exposed to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics so that they have the skills to succeed in the 21st century economy.

…every single child in this great Nation should have the opportunity to robustly pursue the American Dream.

Far too often, children are an afterthought in debates in the halls of Congress. Much of the debate around H.R. 5 completely ignored the needs, concerns, and best interests of children. But to these 17 House members and others who also took to the House floor in support of children, we see you and appreciate your commitment to children.

NOTE: We have these lapel pins and are pleased to share them with Members of Congress or our “Ambassadors for Children” that want to express their commitment to kids. They are a sharp contrast to the AR-15 lapel pins that Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA) has been passing out.

Special acknowledgment to Reps. Wasserman Schultz and Jackson Lee for putting the First Focus Campaign for Children letter into the Congressional Record. Thank you!

No, It’s Not an April Fools’ Joke – 7 million Kids Could Lose Their Medicaid Coverage Over the Next Year

| March 31, 2023 |

No child should go a single day without access to health care coverage. Even short gaps in coverage interrupt children’s access to care, which, especially for young children, can impact their health and development into adulthood. Starting tomorrow, April 1st, families around the country will begin to see a process unfold that could result in nearly 7 million children losing their health coverage. No, that is not an April Fools’ joke. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress provided additional Medicaid funding to states based on meeting several requirements, including a continuous coverage requirement that prohibited states from terminating a child or parent’s Medicaid coverage during the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE). With the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2023, Congress delinked the continuous coverage requirements from the end of the PHE and set April 1st as the date when states can begin what has been called “unwinding.” “Unwinding” means that states can disenroll children and families from Medicaid who no longer qualify and resume the state’s normal course of annual Medicaid eligibility reviews. States will have the next year to conduct the unwinding process and make redeterminations for the 85 million Americans enrolled in Medicaid, including over 34.7 million children

While unwinding might seem like a simple return to the normal operating procedure for state Medicaid agencies, if they do not proceed with caution people will unnecessarily lose coverage. In fact, children are at the greatest risk of unnecessary coverage loss. According to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nearly 74% of children who are projected to lose coverage will still be eligible for Medicaid

You might be asking, “How can so many children be disenrolled despite remaining eligible?” There is no single answer but some reasons include: 

  • Barriers in the renewal process: Certain individuals will be at higher risk of experiencing a gap in coverage or losing their Medicaid completely due to barriers in the renewal process, including: 
    • Children of families who moved during the pandemic not receiving important information about their Medicaid renewal or other notices 
    • Notices not being in clear, understandable language that articulates the steps families must take to renew their child’s coverage 
    • Families with limited-English proficiency (LEP) not receiving paperwork in their preferred language 
    • People with disabilities encountering challenges due to not being able to access information in needed formats. 
  • Crushing workload: The unwinding process will mark the first time since March 2020 that many state Medicaid workers are processing redeterminations — and they have millions to process. Even the most well-intentioned workers are likely to make mistakes due to the sheer workload. Additionally, while some states have made efforts to ramp up their staffing for redeterminations and call centers, the number of redeterminations will test capacity levels. 
  • Short processing windows: States can take the next year to get through their Medicaid redeterminations. However, some states plan to unwind with shorter time frames. For example, Arkansas has said it wants to do the entire process in six months. Forcing short time frames on families to return paperwork and on state workers making the redeterminations will increase the likelihood of mistakes that can cause kids to slip through the cracks. 

To avert some of these unnecessary coverage losses, Congress established safeguards in the budget bill it passed at the end of 2022. States must: 

  • Comply with federal law on redeterminations 
  • Update enrollee contact information through national databases 
  • Make good faith efforts to contact enrollees before disenrolling them based on returned mail 
  • Not raise premiums or make changes to their Medicaid eligibility standards, methodologies, or procedures
  • Submit monthly reports with information about redetermination activities 

In line with these requirements, states must, to the greatest extent possible, use available data to renew the eligibility of children and families without requiring additional paperwork unless absolutely necessary. Where paperwork is necessary, states must send information and notices that are clear and available in the preferred language of families; follow up with families who need to submit documents through multiple methods of communication; and make good-faith efforts to contact families who may have moved during the pandemic. 

Beyond state action, HHS must ensure the appropriate and timely oversight of state unwinding activities. For states that are struggling with unwinding, the Secretary must use his authority to ensure those states swiftly implement a corrective action plan and, in the most egregious cases, are penalized (as allowed by law) or have their eligibility redetermination activities suspended. 

Again, kids losing health care coverage is no joke. We are counting on the states to mitigate unnecessary coverage losses for children and the federal government to hold them accountable for doing so. 

While Many Politicians Are Focused on Book Bans, Kids Are Dying

| March 30, 2023 |

Education is a children’s issue.

Unfortunately, far too often, lawmakers ignore the needs, concerns, and best interests of children when making policy on education and other issues that impacts their lives. This is exactly what happened when the House of Representatives took up and passed H.R. 5, the so-called “Parents Bill of Rights,” by a vote of 213–208 this past week.

H.R. 5 imposes new bureaucracy, red tape, and reporting requirements upon public schools across this country without any funding to pay for it. This diverts much needed resources, time, and attention by teachers and educations away from students.

This is the opposite of what students need.

Rather than adding more bureaucracy and red tape to schools and promoting a chilling effect through increasing incidences of book bans, censorship, and the whitewashing of history, literature, and classroom discussion, as H.R. 5 does, Congress should be addressing the real needs and concerns of children.

As Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL) asked on the House floor this past week:

What about the rights of our students? What about the rights of our young people?

Unfortunately, far too many politicians pay lip service to children, but are far more focused on culture wars, politics, and the interests of certain adults. Both their actions and inactions speak volumes.

As John Stoehr points out:

Our society commonly invokes children, but rarely puts children at the center of our politics, because children are, practically and morally, a marginal group without rights and privileges whose needs are subordinate to another group’s needs, which is their parents’.

Stoehr adds:

The rights of children — the right to grow, develop and change — is conspicuous for its absence in the debate over trans rights, book bans and oppressive forms of government control in states like Florida. If the rights of children had any recognition, it might be clear that banning books on any topic is an infringement of those rights.

Unfortunately, we are seeing record attempts to ban books in this country, as over 2,500 different books were challenges for censorship in schools and libraries in 2022, according to a study by the American Library Association (ALA) released this past week.

And while many politicians at the federal, state, and local levels are focused on banning books due to the advocacy of a small minority of parents, children are in full-blown crisis (and it isn’t because of their reading of award-winning Jodi Picoult books or learning about the history of Ruby Bridges and school integration).

The real crisis, according to new analysis of U.S. mortality rates of children and adolescents, is that:

Between 2019 and 2020, the all-cause mortality rate for ages 1 to 19 years increased by 10.7%, and it increased by an additional 8.3% between 2020 and 2021.

These are astounding and tragic numbers.

After decades of progress in reducing child mortality, children are now dying at higher rates from a variety of causes but particularly guns.

The authors, Steven H. Woolf, Elizabeth R. Wolf, and Frederick P. Rivara, of the study explain:

Suicides among individuals aged 10 to 19 years began to increase in 2007, and homicide rates in this age group began increasing in 2013. Between these nadirs and 2019, the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, mortality rates for suicide increased by 69.5% and homicide rates increased by 32.7%. Likely contributors to both trends include increased access to firearms and a deepening mental health crisis among children and adolescents. Access to opioids (e.g., fentanyl) also increased, and overdose death rates for individuals aged 10 to 19 years began increasing shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the pandemic did not initiate these trends, it may have poured fuel on the fire.

Moreover, book bans and censorship can be harmful to children. In many cases, they violate the fundamental rights of children and further marginalize kids, particularly when they deny children knowledge, understanding, representation, liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom to learn.

As Justice Abe Fortas wrote in his majority opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969):

Students in school as well as out of school are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. . . In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views.

Justice Fortas adds:

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.

In the Supreme Court case Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), the Court ruled that children have a fundamental right to an education and access to learning that is not limited by the censorship of books based on “narrowly partisan or political” grounds. As Justice William Brennan writes:

Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas. Thus, whether petitioners’ removal of books from their school libraries denied respondents their First Amendment rights depends upon the motivation behind petitioners’ actions. If petitioners intended by their removal decision to deny respondents access to ideas with which petitioners disagreed, and if this intent was the decisive factor in petitioners’ decisions, then petitioners have exercised their discretion in violation of the Constitution.

Parental engagement is important, but it should not diminish or undermine the fundamental rights of children. As Professor Joshua Weishart explains:

To be sure, supportive parents can be highly influential in a child’s educational success as well. But to the extent that the law empowers parents in public schooling, it does so to complement — not displace — their children’s educational freedoms.

If politicians really wanted to help children, they would facilitate parental and community engagement in schools and promote the ability of students to access much needed supports and assistance, such as school-based health services, school counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, athletic trainers, etc.

H.Res. 219 by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) would have achieved these goals, but sadly, it was defeated by the House of Representatives by a vote of 203–223.

Children need to have access to services that help them address trauma, mental health and behavioral health challenges, etc., but sadly, H.R. 5 would impose greater barriers, including new federal parental consent requirements. This would be required for even basic health services like checking for a fever, ankle strains, etc. The consequence, as the First Focus Campaign for Children’s letter in opposition to H.R. 5 points out is that children would:

. . . languish or must wait while school personnel spend large amounts of time trying to track down parents for consent.

How does this help children. . .or parents for that matter?

Most parents would want their children to see a school nurse if they are having an asthma attack or feeling sick, see the athletic trainer if their kid sprains an ankle or might have a concussion, or talk to a school counselor, psychologist, or nurse about mental health care needs without delay. H.R. 5 implies that schools would need to get parental consent for each and every health evaluation or screening. This imposes barriers to health care for kids.

Our children need more — not less — access to health care services and supports.

Furthermore, H.R. 5 guts student privacy and confidentiality. As Abigail English and Dr. Carol Ford explain in The Journal of Pediatrics, confidentiality and privacy is critically important to many adolescents:

Decades of research findings have documented the ways in which privacy concerns influence adolescents’ willingness to seek healthcare, where and when they seek care, and how candid they are with their healthcare providers. In the absence of confidentiality protections, some adolescents forego care entirely, some delay care or avoid visiting providers they perceive as not assuring confidentiality, and some limit the information they are willing to disclose.

The authors highlight an important reality:

Not all adolescents have parents who are available, willing, and able to communicate with them about sensitive issues, and not all adolescents are willing to share information about all sensitive health issues with their parents. In this context, confidential consultation with a healthcare provider can play an essential role. Eliciting candid information about adolescent concerns, health behaviors, and symptoms clearly increases clinicians’ opportunities to address concerns, provide evidence-based prevention and risk-reduction counseling, and ensure timely diagnosis and treatment.

H.R. 5 appears to undermine the affirmative rights of young people to seek out health care services for suicide prevention, mental health, substance abuse, asthma, infectious diseases, concussions, or other health care services without schools first obtaining written parental consent. Again, this can have potentially tragic consequences.

And it can also be horribly insensitive to the needs of children.

Furthermore, with respect to the health and safety of children, politicians continue to refuse to address the need for improved gun safety, which is now the leading cause of death among children. According to Kaiser Family Foundation:

Not only does the U.S. have by far the highest overall firearm death rate among children, the U.S. also has the highest rates of each type of child firearm deaths — suicides, assaults, and accident or undetermined intent — among similarly large and wealthy countries.

Congress has also failed to extend the improved Child Tax Credit and allowed it to expire at the end of 2021. This failure has caused 3 million children to fail back into poverty, which negatively impacts every aspect of the lives of children — their education, health, nutrition and hunger, homelessness, and even rates of child abuse and neglect.

And finally, other problems facing children are being compounded by politicians who are actively marginalizing children. As an example, there are a growing number of hostile legislative proposals directed at LGBTQ students that are contributing to their harassment and stress. It is abusive.

Instead, our children need adults to listen and truly hear them — not to continue ignoring their needs and concerns, or worse, actively targeting them for harm.

Last, if proponents of H.R. 5 truly believe that the only people we should be listening to about education is parents, then let’s understand what they are saying (Spoiler Alert: it isn’t a call for book bans nor a desire to file unlimited public records requests for the personnel and personal files of teachers, which H.R. 5 promotes at potential extensive costs to schools).

A May 2022 poll by Lake Research Partners found that parents believe “policy involving children should always be governed by a ‘best interest of the child’ standard (77–11%). When it comes to investing in children, 9-in-10 voters (90–7%) agree that “investing in children helps improve their lives, development, and outcomes.”

Specifically, parents overwhelmingly believe the federal government spends too little rather than too much on reducing child hunger (65–5% overall and mothers at a near unanimous 68–1%). Parents also believe we are spending too little rather than too much on public education (60–19%), early childhood education (63–9% overall and 67–8% among mothers), assistance for child care expenses (61–11% overall and 70–8% among mothers), accessing mental health services (64–14%), preventing gun violence (52–10%), reducing child poverty (67–16%), child homelessness (69–13%), and child abuse and neglect (67–10% overall and 76–6% among mothers).

H.R. 5 does the opposite. The legislation provides no funding for education, and instead, diverts resources, time, and attention from the education of students in public schools in favor of more administrative and bureaucratic reporting requirements. This fails kids.

Moreover, in a February 2023 Global Strategy Group poll, American voters express opposition to the education agenda that is being pushed by some members of Congress and state-level politicians, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, that seeks to ban books, impose speech codes upon teachers, ban transgender-focused health care options, and impose greater censorship and micromanagement of education curriculum upon public schools.

In fact, a CBS News/YouGov poll found overwhelming opposition to the banning of books for “criticizing U.S. history” (17% yes, 83% no), “political ideas you disagree with” (15–85%), “depicting slavery” (13–87%), and “discussing race” (13–87%).

Children desperately need our attention, and that attention demands that we listen to their needs and concerns and respect their best interests and fundamental human rights, which include their right to education, health care, and the protection from abuse, violence, and discrimination.

And last, in case it really needs to be said, some solutions for children would be to fully fund our public schools, expand access to health care, prevent gun violence, cut child poverty, and increase access to child nutrition.

Children do not need an agenda that undermines public education, fails to address rising child mortality, and promotes child labor.