Putting Kids in the Policy Agenda, Not Just the Sales-Pitch

Just before Thanksgiving, the Denver Post ran an op-ed by two senior political strategists, Hank Brown and Barry Jackson, that looked at first as though it might explore federal policy issues from a children’s perspective:

“Earlier this month, voters pressed the “reset” button on their government in Washington.  Exit polls showed we were concerned about the economy and whether our kids are going to be better off than we are. …”

But it started going downhill right after that. In the next 800 words or so, the op-ed outlined a policy agenda on nearly a dozen federal issues that matter for children – from health care to the federal budget. But not once in those 800 words did the word children appear again. Instead, the authors laid out an agenda that ignored children’s needs and interests entirely.

Campaign for Children president Bruce Lesley and I developed an op-ed that responded nearly point-for-point, taking a look at most of the issues raised by the original authors’ op-ed, but from a children’s perspective. The text of that op-ed, as submitted to The Post, appears below.

The Post was interested, but they don’t run op-eds rebutting op-eds. The commentary editor was gracious about it, and she’s right – if their opinion page became a forum for running debates on some issues, they’d never have the space to explore other issues.

The paper offered to consider a 150-word letter-to-the-editor, and we gratefully agreed. That letter, retaining our op-ed’s focus, ran this week.

As the letter observes, the problem isn’t Brown and Jackson. It’s that they’re emblematic of a national political debate where kids’ interests serve to get readers – and voters – interested, but then forgotten when the time comes to build a policy agenda.

Crafting the op-ed was a really liberating experience for Bruce and me. It reminded us that it’s not only important to call politicians and political operatives when their policy agenda doesn’t back up their rhetoric on children, but it’s also doable, interesting to journalists, and pretty darn satisfying.

It’s also the only way the conversation will ever change.

Campaign for Children Op-Ed as Submitted

Hank Brown and Barry Jackson (“Here’s what the new Congress should do,” November 25th) are right: voters about children’s futures. The problem with their commentary is that their policy agenda ignores children entirely.

Our own polling confirms what Brown and Jackson report. Responding to our December 2013 survey, two-thirds of voters expressed concern that our children’s lives wouldn’t be better than our own. Bipartisan supermajorities of voters also endorsed the protection or expansion of critical federal investments in children – from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (Child Health Plan Plus, in Colorado) to Head Start, the Child Tax Credit to child abuse prevention and response.

Unlike voters, Brown and Jackson ignore the actual policies that would help children in Colorado and nationwide. But their agenda provides a useful forum to explore what a Congress serious about helping children might prioritize.

Taxes: tax policy accounts for nearly 40 percent of all federal investments in children. Just two tax provisions, the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, lift millions of children out of poverty every year and serve as economic lifelines for millions more in moderate- and middle-income working families. Brown and Jackson ignore them, but in a new Congress serious about responding to voters’ concerns for children, they’d not only be on the list of tax priorities, they’d top the list.

Regulations: there are nearly 23,000 homeless children in Colorado (nearly 1.3 million nationwide), but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “homeless” definition excludes most of them. Homeless children face the same horrors as homeless adults, but because they don’t fit HUD’s regulatory definition, they’re denied counseling, food, clothing, and other basic supports. Unlike Brown and Jackson, some in Congress are paying attention – the bipartisan Homeless Children and Youth Act would fix the definition, so homeless children can get the help they need. A Congress serious about helping children would act quickly to send it to President Obama for enactment.

Immigration reform: nearly one-fourth of children in America are children of immigrants, so helping children succeed means ensuring that children of immigrants succeed. The comprehensive immigration bill passed last year by the U.S. Senate would have eliminated the fear and trauma experienced by children whose parents are detained and deported, avoided unnecessary placements in already-struggling child protective services systems like Colorado’s, and improved legal protections for children in immigration hearings. A Congress serious about children’s success would ensure that it gets a vote in both chambers.

Welfare reform: true reform means ensuring that parents will never face a choice between work and meeting their children’s basic needs. With more than 220,000 Colorado children living in poverty – and one-in-five nationwide – a Congress serious about protecting children would only pass additional welfare changes that are paired with a national commitment to cut child poverty in half within a decade and increased access to child care.

Budgets: just eight cents of every dollar the federal government spends is spent for the benefit of children. Worse yet, we’re the ones who tell Congress that every year in our “Children’s Budget” report, because there is no official accounting of how budget decisions affect children. Legislation creating an official children’s budget has languished in Congress for years. A Congress serious about children would pass it immediately.

Health care: Brown and Jackson focus predictably on Obamacare. They ignore that federal funding for Colorado’s Child Health Plan Plus (the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or “CHIP” nationally) will end next year. CHIP is bipartisan – created by President Bill Clinton and a Congress led by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich – it’s a model of state flexibility, it’s a true private-public partnership, and it works, having reduced child uninsurance in America, even as child poverty skyrocketed. A Congress serious about children would extend CHIP funding immediately.

These aren’t the only issues that matter for children. And Brown and Jackson aren’t the only political observers whose talk about children isn’t backed up by their policy priorities. Neither one of those is the point. The point is that national politics in America is too often like Brown and Jackson’s commentary – passing mention of children without a focus on how policy debates actually affect children.

Let’s demand more. Let’s challenge the new Congress to take positions on these critical children’s issues. Let’s challenge them to expand the agenda to include issues like child abuse and neglect, education, home visiting and early childhood, and a concrete plan to reduce child poverty. Real change that will actually improve children’s lives begins with voters who demand action – not just lip-service – for children.