Children Need Champions Now More Than Ever

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This blog post originally appeared in Huffington Post.

As a recent Urban Institute report entitled Kids’ Share 2014 highlights, if policy changes are not enacted by the President and Congress in the near future, the share of federal investments committed to children will decline by about one-fifth of both the share of the federal budget and the economy over the next decade.

As the report concludes:

Without adequately funded education, nutrition, housing, early education and care, and other basic supports, the foundation of children’s well-being is at risk. When children grow up without adequate supports, they are less able to support themselves and to contribute to economic growth as adults…A continuous decline in federal support for children over the next decade bodes poorly for their future or the future of the nation.

Fortunately, the American people are not on board with children becoming a declining priority. According to an American Viewpoint poll, not only are voters pessimistic about the well-being of children but they are deeply concerned about how the next generation will fare. In fact, by a 67-26 percent margin, voters are not confident that the life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us. That concern for the future of children resonates with all American voters but is highest among Republican voters, who overwhelmingly doubt our children’s generation will be better off (80-18 percent, with 63 percent strongly not confident).

While some might argue that declining investments in kids is the price we need to pay to reduce the federal deficit, the fact is that the American people disagree and believe it to be a false choice. As a result, voters are against cutting education (74-23 percent with 68 percent strongly against), programs preventing child abuse and neglect (77-18 percent with 67 percent strongly against), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (67-21 percent), tax credits for working families with children (68-26 percent), and early childhood programs (62-32 percent) in order to reduce the federal budget deficit.

There is clearly a major disconnect between the major budget reductions for children that are pending in the federal budget versus the desire by the public to have children protected from such cuts. So, why the disconnect?

According to Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell:

For all their baby-kissing, politicians know that it’s the elderly — not suffrage-ineligible children or their parents — who turn out to vote. This perhaps explains why a smaller and smaller share of government budgets is expected to go to children over the coming decade

Obviously, children also do not operate political action committees (PACs) that can funnel money to politicians that protect their interests.

Fortunately, there are signs and glimmers of hope that things may be beginning to change. First, we have seen a growing cadre of legislative Champions for Children at the federal level.

In fact, five years ago, the First Focus Campaign for Children began putting together a “scorecard” to best identify and thank the Top 100 Champions for Children at the federal level. That list includes 16 senators and 23 representatives who consistently speak out and make children a priority in their work year-after-year. These 39 legislators have, as a result, been named a Champion for Children in all five years of the scorecard’s history.

However, with the departure from the Congress of some long-standing important Champions for Children in recent years, including Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Richard Lugar (R-IN), and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and the forthcoming retirements of some other champions, including Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), the children’s advocacy community has become increasingly concerned about whether new voices will rise to speak out on behalf of children in a strong and meaningful way.

Fortunately, that is happening. In fact, there are 7 senators and 21 representatives that have become Champions for Children for the first time in this Congress and, in some cases, they have surpassed some previous champions on the scorecard. This is an important development and encouraging news for children.

Second, in a number of House, Senate, and particularly, Governor’s races, we are seeing education rising to become a leading issue in a number of the campaigns. There are a number of candidates that are on the offensive with a pro-education platform committing increased investments in education and early childhood programs. Meanwhile, those on the defensive for having supported cuts to education in the past are, in almost every instance, now promising increases in education funding for the future.

Examples of these races in which education has become a major campaign issue are as follows: North Carolina Senate, Iowa Senate, Pennsylvania Governor, Michigan Governor, Florida Governor, Illinois Governor, Wisconsin Governor, Kansas Governor, Texas Governor, and Texas Lieutenant Governor.

As candidates jockey and argue over who will do better for children, one can only hope this translates into a reversal of the recent education cuts that schools, students, and teachers have faced but that it translates into lasting support for both education and children.

Third, women and members of the Tri-Caucus in the House (Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus) have been growing in the Senate and the House and data indicates that they are more likely to be Champions for Children, as determined by the First Focus Campaign for Children scorecard.

In the case of women legislators, 55 percent of the women and 29 percent of the men qualify as Champions or Defenders of Children in the Senate. And, in the House, 25 percent of the women and just 13 percent of the men qualify for the awards. Overall, women are twice as likely as men (32 to 16 percent) to be a Champion or Defender of Children.

In addition, members of the House Tri-Caucus are more than 50 percent more likely to be Champions for Children than the average House member and all three of the co-chairs , Representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX), and Judy Chu (D-CA), are Champions for Children.

Consequently, as the number of women and minority legislators grow, this should translate in greater support for children.

Fourth, just as men are increasingly taking on a greater share of child-rearing duties in families, this younger generation of male legislators are increasingly stepping up their support for children in Congress. Surprisingly, of the 28 newly-named Champions for Children in this Congress, 22 were men. This has reduced the gender gap, as women were nearly three times as likely to be a Champion for Children at the close of the last Congress in 2012 and now are “only” twice as likely to earn that recognition in this Congress.

This improvement in support for children among younger men is also reflected in polling data. For example, support for the renewal and extension of CHIP among women overall (77-12 percent) is higher than among men (71-16 percent), but that gap is eliminated among younger women and men ages 18-34. Among these younger voters, women support extension of CHIP by 79-11 percent but young adult men support it even more at 80-7 percent.

The gender gap for CHIP grows with each subsequent generation and is widest among voters 60 years of age or older. With this age group, there is a 28 percentage point swing in the level of support, as older women support protecting CHIP by a much wider margin (79-8 percent) than older men (64-21 percent).

Polling on other children’s issues, such as protecting early childhood programs from federal budget cuts shows the same type of results. As noted earlier, voters oppose cutting early childhood programs to reduce the federal deficit by nearly a 2-to-1 margin (62-32 percent). Women oppose such cuts (66-29 percent) by higher margins than men (59-36 percent), but the age trends are very much the same as you see with CHIP.

For example, opposition to budget cuts for early childhood programs is consistently strong among women, as the level of opposition is right around 66 percent for every age group. In sharp contrast, there is a wide difference in the polling among men, as younger men strongly oppose cuts to early childhood programs by a substantial margin (73-18 percent) while older men just barely oppose the cuts (48-45 percent).

While the Kids’ Share report highlights the negative pathway that the federal budget has placed kids on with declining investments over the next decade and some would argue that this will only get worse as the percentage of the elderly population continues to rise and that of children declines, the fact is that voters would like to see a different outcome for children. In fact, the evidence shows that the American people are: deeply concerned about the future of children; specifically opposed to the pending cuts to children’s programs; making children a priority in a number of elections this year; and, showing trends, particularly among younger male voters, that point to increasing levels of support for children in the future.

Furthermore, with growing numbers of female, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American legislators, who are disproportionately Champions for Children, and a new generation of male legislators who appear to be more consciously pro-child than previous generations, a new coalition for children may be forming to willingly and proactively change the current course for our next generation toward the positive.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

And, even for those motivated purely by self-interest, cutting back on investments in kids will have long-term implications for all of us. As Anna Bernasek of Newsweekwrites about spending cuts that target and disadvantage children:

That has implications for long-term economic growth. Cutting back on the young is like eating the seed corn: satisfying a momentary need but leaving no way to grow a prosperous future.

With an aging society, we are calling upon our children’s generation to carry more of a burden than ever. Investing in them and our nation’s future matters and the time is now.