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Demand that Our Nation’s Leaders ‘Commit to Kids’

| August 5, 2020 |

Our nation’s children deserve the very best we have to offer them. Their best interests should be at the forefront of every decision made by our nation’s leaders at the federal, state, and local levels of government.

To achieve that goal, we have launched with other child advocates a campaign to urge our nation’s leaders to #Commit2Kids. Between now and the November 3 election in less than 100 days, we are challenging candidates and elected officials nationwide to tell us exactly what they will do for our country’s children.

Unfortunately, some politicians pay lip service to the needs of children because, after all, they are cute and polls consistently show that the American people are wildly supportive of improving the lives of children.

However, at key moments when children need politicians to step up or speak out to promote or protect their needs or best interest, kids are far too often treated as an afterthought, used as a bargaining chip in political negotiations, or shockingly, intentionally harmed.

In a preview of the forthcoming release of Children’s Budget 2020, First Focus on Children’s analysis finds that the domestic share of the federal budget dropped from 8.19 percent in President Obama’s last year in office in 2016 to just 7.48 percent in 2020 — a 9 percent reduction.

Furthermore, if President Trump’s proposed FY 2021 budget had been enacted, federal investments in children would have declined by another $21 billion on an inflation-adjusted basis.

If you really want to “make America great again,” you would invest in our children — our future.

The problem, of course, is that kids don’t vote. They don’t have paid lobbyists. They don’t run or operate a political action committee. One former senator told me that weeks often go by without children even being mentioned in the halls of Congress.

That must change. Our children deserve better.

To fellow child advocates, we are way too nice. The people that gravitate to working with and supporting children tend to be, by definition, kind and empathetic. However, we must stand up and speak out stronger in support of the next generation.

The failures to address the needs of children in this pandemic and economic recession are instructive. For months, some leaders dismissed the needs of children and even argued children were immune from harm, when the facts clearly dispelled that myth. Every aspect of the lives of children was being disrupted and it took months before many of our nation’s leaders even took notice.

Even before the pandemic, dozens of bills that would improve the lives of children and had bipartisan support have sat without action or consideration in the U.S. Senate. It is clear that children have been treated as an afterthought and are the victims of neglect by some of our nation’s political leaders, despite pleas for attention and action from child advocates.

Shockingly, at First Focus Campaign for Children, we could not identify a single vote in the U.S. Senate during all of 2019 that was specific to improving the lives of children. NOT ONE.

Even worse, when you see families being separated and kids being placed in cages along the U.S.-Mexico border, other political leaders are engaging in outright child abuse where cruelty has been the point.

Now some of those leaders have suddenly realized that schools and child care are critical needs in the economy and that the needs of children should have been a priority all along. As child advocates can attest, it is all too little, too late.

The President, whose policies have largely ignored or harmed children, is demanding that schools and child care centers reopen without having taken the necessary public health measures to make them safe to reopen, without having provided schools and child care centers the necessary resources and support to safely reopen, and with no real plan.

Parents are deeply concerned about the consequences of President Trump’s demand to reopen schools. In fact, opposition to reopening schools by the public has been rising, as only one-third of the public supports “allowing K-12 schools. . .to open at the end of the summer.”

Any blame directed at schools is misplaced. As Chalkbeat managing editor Susan Darville points out:

Outrage over schools’ inability to fully reopen should not, of course, be directed at schools themselves, but at the public health failure that makes it impossible for most of them to do so. . . So if the first sin was failing to control the pandemic, the second was letting the virus run wild in a country ill-suited to handle the cascading consequences. The people left to figure it out are superintendents, school board members, teachers, and parents, for whom that simple word ‘reopen’ actually entails a dizzying array of interlocking problems. The people who will pay the eventual price are America’s children, for years to come.

All across our vast country, our nation’s educators that care for our children and parents are being asked to deal with a lose-lose proposition.

In rural Arizona, superintendent Jeff Gregorich has been pushed to reopen the district’s schools or the governor said he will withhold some of the school district’s funding. Trump has also threatened to withhold funds from schools that cannot fully open.

Gregorich has seen a teacher die as a result of COVID and others have been infected. These are real world and real life decisions that are being laid upon his doorstep and public schools all across the country as a consequence of public health, political, and leadership failures not the fault of our schools. He explains:

These kids need every dollar we can get. But COVID is spreading all over this area and hitting my staff, and now it feels like there’s a gun to my head. I already lost one teacher to this virus. Do I risk opening back up even if it’s going to cost us more lives? Or do we run school remotely and end up depriving these kids?

He adds:

I don’t understand how anyone could expect us to reopen the building this month in a way that feels safe. It’s like they’re telling us: “Okay. Summer’s over. It’s been long enough. Time to get back to normal.” But since when has this virus operated on our schedule?

I dream about going back to normal. I’d love to be open. These kids are hurting right now. I don’t need a politician to tell me that. We only have 300 students in this district, and they’re like family. My wife is a teacher here, and we had four kids go through these schools. I know whose parents are laid off from the copper mine and who doesn’t have enough to eat. We delivered breakfast and lunches this summer, and we gave out more meals each day than we have students. I get phone calls from families dealing with poverty issues, depression, loneliness, boredom. Some of these kids are out in the wilderness right now, and school is the best place for them. We all agree on that.

But every time I start to play out what that looks like on August 17th, I get sick to my stomach. More than a quarter of our students live with grandparents. These kids could very easily catch this virus, spread it and bring it back home. It’s not safe. There’s no way it can be safe.

If you think anything else, I’m sorry, but it’s a fantasy. Kids will get sick, or worse. Family members will die. Teachers will die.

The children are not alright. Every aspect of their lives are being impacted by the pandemic and the economic recession and their voices, concerns, anxiety, hopes, and dreams should be listened to, fully considered, and most of all, addressed.

We must demand that our political leaders #Commit2Kids and to stop ignoring the needs and best interest of our children and families and to make children a priority in their decision-making.

We must vote for and elect more Champions for Children like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who understand that investing in children is in all of our interest.

Sen. Booker gets it, as he explains:

The most valuable resource in a global, knowledge-based society is the genius of a nation’s children. And the nation that best cultivates that genius is the nation that best thrives.

Booker adds:

This is our moral moment. And I hope, for the sake of our children, that all of us exercise our power and do more than we were doing before.

In November, America will decide who gets to lead in the White House, Congress, and in a number of states. Before we cast a single ballot, we should demand that our leaders make this set of commitments to our children —

  • A commitment to help every child fulfill their fullest potential, which includes fully funding our nation’s public schools and child care centers and doing whatever it takes to help children return safely.
  • A commitment to “Cover All Kids” with affordable, accessible, and high-quality health coverage.
  • A commitment to cut child poverty in half by the end of the decade.
  • A commitment to protect children from abuse and neglect.
  • A commitment to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry.
  • A commitment to ensure that every child has a place to call home, a place that is safe and where they can play, dream, and plan for their future.
  • A commitment to ensure a “best interest of the child” standard is at the heart of all policymaking related to children and families, regardless of race, gender, income, disability, sexual preference, or immigration status.
  • And, a commitment to create an independent Children’s Commissioner that will listen to and raise the voices of children and help hold the government answerable for addressing the needs and well-being of children.

Join this movement to #Commit2Kids at

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) offers outreach materials to get kids enrolled

| August 5, 2020 |

Never in the 23 years that the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) has existed, have we faced a Back-to-School enrollment season like the one we face this year. Schools may or may not allow students on site to enroll. Schools may or may not open their physical buildings for classes. And if kids stay home for learning and don’t participate in extracurricular activities, will annual health physicals and immunizations be required? The COVID-19 pandemic continues to upend all aspects of our lives, and enrolling kids in health coverage like Medicaid and CHIP are in the same quagmire.

Over the years, local and state “Covering Kids” campaigns have used Back-to-School as a key point in time to conduct outreach and enrollment efforts, often partnering with local schools, childcare centers, medical providers, local businesses, and TV and radio stations. Groups have sponsored free backpack giveaways, outdoor concerts, well-child appointment fairs, booths at state fairs, and many other creative events to reach eligible but unenrolled kids. This year, we don’t expect to see any of those events.

So, what do we do, in a time when kids need coverage more than ever? And in a year when nearly a million kids lost coverage in Medicaid and CHIP, with Latino kids losing coverage at the highest rate?  Thankfully, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has a plan for states, local groups and public health offices. Their “Connecting Kids to Coverage National Campaign” includes an animated video in English and Spanish, a print-ready palm card, posters, and direct-mail insert in English and Spanish. They’ve also made a digital button that can be added to websites to easily connect families with health insurance information in their state. Find the complete library of customizable materials here.

When so much else is going wrong, it’s refreshing to see something being done right.

We can’t experiment with the health of our children during COVID-19

| July 29, 2020 |

Like many people, I’ve been isolating at home with my family. The pandemic has impacted everyone, but it’s been especially difficult to see how it’s affected the daily lives of my three younger siblings. My eight-year-old sister, Maggie, told me one day she was scared. In the beginning, I told her not to worry, as children had been largely spared from the impacts of this mysterious virus. But as children started getting sick, I realized there are frightening unknowns around kids and COVID.

As medical experts have acknowledged, we still know very little about how this virus impacts adults. But we know even less about its effect on children, especially how they spread it. Studies remain unclear on how young children spread the virus, and we can’t make schools the experiment to help us find out. Yet lawmakers and others are pushing for schools to reopen, even though we have no idea what the impact will be on the millions of children, teachers, and families. It’s clear that more research is needed, but the problem is that scientific research takes time – especially with children.

When the pandemic first began, many believed that kids were less susceptible and older adults were the ones urged to social distance. As the pandemic has progressed and we’ve uncovered more about COVID-19, it is obvious kids are not immune at all. Between January and May, more than 231,000 children under the age of 18 were infected with the virus. When Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children first appeared, a rare and mysterious illness related to COVID-19 infections, the narrative surrounding kids and COVID began to change. Kids were no longer being spared from this disease in the way scientists previously believed. To make matters worse, there is still little known about why children get MIS-C and its long term impacts.

Kids are being overlooked and undercut during this pandemic, and their vulnerability to the disease is being underestimated by our leaders. The governor of Missouri, Mike Parson, said that kids are “at the lowest risk possible” of catching COVID-19, and if they do catch it, “they’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.”  Not only is this statement false — there are thousands of kids who have caught the virus and hundreds who have died from it — but it’s dangerous. Saying that kids will “get over it” is reckless and irresponsible. Research into the health implications for younger people, and their families, should be prioritized, since a newly occurring disease comes with a great number of unknowns, especially about the long-term effects.  

As we move forward in these unprecedented times, our leaders should not be basing decisions regarding the health of our children. Scientists are doing the best they can in conducting studies, but as Dr. Sonja Rasumussen, a pediatrician, said, “Science takes time, and good science takes even more time.” America’s children deserve good science. They deserve the best science. It’s up to us to make sure they get it.

Back to school, but not back to normal — what lawmakers must do

| July 28, 2020 |

Every September, kids go back to school. This year, learning will happen in new and scarcely tested conditions. The coronavirus pandemic means that kids and teachers may not be able to attend school safely.

Districts and communities are considering a variety of approaches. Some districts are proposing 100% remote learning for the foreseeable future. Others are considering hybrid models, where children attend in smaller cohorts for a portion of the week. Some are even calling for a full-time, unrestricted return, though families and teachers have expressed strong reservations. Two things are for certain. First, the strategizing to reopen must be made on a local basis, with schools and community stakeholders collaborating in open communication. Funds must not be tied to reopening. Second, the federal government must allocate hundreds of billions of dollars to states to prevent catastrophe.

Public schools are the backbone of our democracy, shaping our youth and fueling their learning, academic and social. Schools, and child care for young ones, ideally provide a nurturing space for kids to learn and begin to name the world around them, together with their peers, on the road to becoming. Regardless of the form school takes in September, we must make sure that it continues to deliver everything that kids rely on schools for — education, lunch, social services, mental health services. Beyond that, schools must tackle inequities, long present, and exacerbated by the pandemic.

As the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine points out, the question of reopening must be iterative; we must be responsive to day-to-day changes. Planning will inform our practices and experiences; in turn, experience and practice will inform our understanding and planning. The process will be ongoing.

As schools are becoming the crisis’s next frontier, not prioritizing education will mean more kids, teachers, non-teaching staff, parents, and grandparents will get sick and die. For districts that return, best practices will be mitigating, not absolute. But they will be the difference between putting thousands more children, staff, and their families at risk.

Monetary support must reflect the rhetorical commitment given to kids and education. For a long time, kids and education have not gotten their fair share of federal spending, and statewide and local budget shortfalls, exacerbated by the virus, mean that schools and teachers struggle to operate on shrinking budgets. Congress is currently negotiating emergency relief and its annual appropriations. To support education immediately, lawmakers must do the following:

  • Ensure kids continue receiving vital services and commit to equity.
    • Millions of kids rely on schools as the locus of necessary services, from school lunches to homeless liaisons, to socio-emotional support, and more. Ensure that students who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout – kids experiencing poverty and homelessness, kids with disabilities, English learners, and foster youth, and disproportionately Black and Brown students – receive the food assistance, educational support, physical, mental, and emotional health services and other supports they need, regardless of the learning model.
    • Prioritize getting certain populations of kids back in the classroom. For many young students in early childhood and elementary education, social learning is a primary issue and remote learning simply isn’t feasible. Some children with disabilities thrive in special education classrooms, but struggle with online learning. Health factors may force other children to learn remotely. Students experiencing homelessness may not have a safe and secure place to do remote learning. Remote schooling has been — and can be — successful for many kids. But we should make sure kids who need in-person learning get back to the classroom first.
  • Make a mammoth investment in teachers and non-teaching staff.
    • How many teachers will get sick, resign, or take leaves of absence? The pandemic and its attendant upheaval come amidst a teacher shortage that extends to substitutes and is projected to get worse in the coming year. At the same time, teachers will be tasked with more work, and the burdens of the crisis demand more substitutes and teachers than ever before. Teachers cannot conduct classes for online and in-person cohorts at the same time; as a colleague put it: that’s a political solution, not a practical one. Yet right now, budget shortfalls mean more teachers are being laid off. Beyond that, nurses and counseling staff will be overwhelmed with the health needs of students, physical and mental. Schools need a fleet of well-paid and supported teachers, substitutes, healthcare professionals, social workers, instructional aides, and non-teaching staff (like bus drivers, custodians, and food personnel). To start, we need a minimum of $200 billion put toward education; as time progresses, states will likely need continued relief packages.
  • Make education equitable.
    • States and localities, which normally foot the bill on education, will not be able to sufficiently fund education on their own. Dramatically decreasing statewide revenues and virus-induced lost funds for schools may mean the adoption of austerity measures, including devastating cuts to education. At the same time, staff and stakeholders need to revamp the way schools and learning operate, whether in the classroom or remote. Long-held practices in education funding, among them a reliance on local property taxes, have led to wide inequities between districts – poor districts, and the kids in them, get less funding than their wealthy counterparts. These inequities occur, too, along racial lines: Black and Latinx communities are consistently underfunded. Support our kids by investing particularly and decisively in equity.
      • Enact an immediate eviction moratorium to prevent more kids and families from becoming homeless.
      • Support public schools over charters and privates
      • Bridge the digital divide by investing in E-Rate and Lifeline
      • Support working and unemployed parents, and parents experiencing homelessness, whose kids will need to get to school or learn from home

Confronted with the reality that going back to school isn’t going back to normal, this crisis forces us to find creative responses to old problems foregrounded by new conditions. We need to put our focus on getting kids the education, services, and support they need, regardless of how or where we deliver them.

President Trump doesn’t think all kids count. We disagree (and so does the Constitution).

| July 28, 2020 |

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

One of the key tenets of the work of First Focus on Children is that the well-being of every child matters. Thus, we were horrified to see President Trump’s recent Presidential Memorandum directing that undocumented individuals should be excluded from the 2020 Decennial Census data being used to determine the apportionment of congressional districts.

First, it is important to stress that this Memorandum is blatantly unconstitutional – the 14th Amendment clearly states that “representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.” As many lawyers (see also here and here) have confirmed, the term “persons” has long been counted to include everyone, and the President does not have the ability to determine who counts.

There is no doubt that if implemented, this will hurt children—citizen children, documented children, and undocumented children—in significant ways, with the most immediate being it will discourage households with children from responding to the 2020 Census. Six million children live in households with at least one undocumented immigrant adult. While this Memorandum does not change the fact that no citizenship question exists on the Census form, we know that its existence may add to the fear that immigrant households already face in completing the Census.

Two million young children were missed in the 2010 Decennial Census, more than any other age group. We are at great risk of another severe undercount in 2020 – nearly 40 percent of the country has yet to respond to the Census, and far fewer households with children have responded in Census tracts that are determined to be at high-risk for undercounting children.

As we know from the work of the Count All Kids Committee, when families respond to the Census and count everyone in their households, it means more federal money for their states and communities for schools, for health care, for child care, and for many other programs that help children thrive. It means local governments have better information to plan for things like the number of children in schools or how many families need health care. Currently, the deadline to respond to the Census is October 31st, 2020. If we fail to count all of our nation’s children, the repercussions will last for the next decade, or most of a childhood.

While the direct implications of the President’s Memorandum are terrible enough, it could have even larger ramifications. Other ongoing attempts along these lines to affect who is included when drawing Congressional districts have focused on limiting apportionment based on the federal voting population – which excludes all noncitizens and all children.

Excluding children, as the New York Times’ Emily Badger points out, shifts more power to areas that are older and whiter as our child population grows increasingly diverse. Children are often treated as an afterthought by politicians because they are not allowed to vote, but millions of children will be invisible and completely unrepresented if this plan moves forward and all 74 million children in this country could be ignored and unrepresented.

If the Trump Administration attempts and is successful at using this line of reasoning, it will mean fewer resources for children at a time when they need it most. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, children experienced high rates of poverty and homelessness, and the pandemic and resulting economic recession are only serving to further exacerbate these problems.

There are already actions happening to stop implementation of the Memorandum, with several lawsuits underway. In addition, Congress needs to act to extend the statutory reporting deadline for apportionment data to April 30, 2021, and ensure that the President cannot force the U.S. Census Bureau to transmit data to the Administration before the Census Bureau determines the data are ready.

The House Committee on Oversight & Reform is also holding a hearing this Wednesday, July 29th to shed more light on the unconstitutional nature of the President’s Memorandum. We hope this hearing includes some discussion on the impact of the 2020 Census for our children’s future.

For additional information on the importance of the 2020 Census to child well-being:

Cory Booker: “What we have been doing has not been enough.”

| July 28, 2020 |

To accompany the launch of our #Commit2Kids campaign, First Focus President Bruce Lesley sat down with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to discuss how we as a nation can elevate the issue of child poverty. 

With fewer than 100 days until the 2020 election, #Commit2Kids challenges candidates and elected officials nationwide to tell us how they plan to address the health, safety, and well-being of all our nation’s children. As a candidate in the presidential primaries, Sen. Booker unveiled a plan to reduce child poverty by 70%, stressing that while we have the tools to address the problem, the question is whether we will.

“The most valuable natural resource in a global knowledge-based society is the genius of a nation’s children,” Sen. Booker said during the conversation. “The nation that best cultivates that genius is the nation that best thrives.”

The United States has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world. Sen. Booker attributed our lag on the health and well-being of our children not to circumstance, but to conscious decisions that we make as a nation. He emphasized our failure to nurture low-income children and families with basic supports offered in other wealthy countries, such as prenatal care, affordable childcare, universal preschool, and other structures.

How can we as citizens take action and #Commit2Kids? Sen. Booker emphasized the collective nature of our democracy and the power of every individual. He urged individuals to step up and do more, by reserving even an hour a week to lobby, write letters, advocate or in some way make their voices heard. 

“What we have been doing has not been enough,” Booker said. “Anybody who thinks they’re powerless, you are wrong.”

Senator Cory Booker on why lawmakers should plan to commit to kids

| July 27, 2020 |

COVID-19 has revealed an ugly truth: the kids are not alright.

Decades of chronic underfunding by lawmakers have made the pandemic and its economic fallout a crisis for our nation’s children. A record number are going hungry. Nearly 7 million could lose their health care. Child poverty threatens to swallow millions, and Black and Latinx children are many times more likely to go hungry, homeless or without health care. We’ve made going to school a life-or-death choice.

On Monday, July 27 — less than 100 days until the 2020 election — First Focus on Children launches #Commit2Kids, a campaign challenging candidates and elected officials nationwide to tell us what, exactly, they will do for our country’s children.  

Join First Focus President Bruce Lesley and Sen. Cory Booker at Noon ET (7/27) as they launch the campaign with a discussion on why lawmakers must defend children, even though they can’t vote and do not have Super PACs.

Sen. Booker was named a 2019 Champion for Children by First Focus Campaign for Children. As a Democratic primary candidate, Sen. Booker proposed slashing child poverty.

Unfinished Business: the Civil Rights Act of 2020

| July 23, 2020 |

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Our country should love, cherish, and care for all of our children, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, zip code, or immigration status. About half of the children in this country are now white and half are children of color.

As author Maya Angelou writes:

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength

Equality, fairness, and diversity are our strengths, but only if we embrace those values.

Sadly, 57 years ago, Governor George Wallace declared “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and attempted to “stand in the schoolhouse door” to block the admission of Black students to the University of Alabama. President John F. Kennedy took action to protect Black students and called on the nation to pass a series of civil rights laws in a radio and television address to the nation. President Kennedy said:

I hope that every American, regardless or where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents. This Nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened…

It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color. In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated. But this is not the case.

JFK’s Address to the Nation on Civil Rights 1963

The culmination of many tragic events including the brutal murder of Emmett Till (14) in Chicago, civil rights protests, marches, and incredible brave acts by a number of young people in this country, including the Little Rock Nine being admitted to school by federal troops, Ruby Bridges (6) escorted by federal marshals to integrate New Orleans schools, the Children’s Crusade, and the Freedom Rides led to the passage of landmark bills: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1964, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act).

These were important steps, but our country has a long journey ahead of it to achieve the America envisioned by President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, who in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, said:

This is not time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality to all of God’s children.

While many are calling for police reform (and that is certainly important), the problems we must resolve demand that we go much further. Our nation must combat structural racism in all of its forms, and young people are, once again, leaders in this conversation.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow explains:

This society creates conditions in which extreme, concentrated poverty can exist and then punishes those who react negatively to being condemned to that poverty.

This society doesn’t sufficiently care for and insure people, guaranteeing that every person, regardless of station or wealth, has equal access to health care, and then it punishes those who suffer from stress, depression and violent fits of rage because of it.

This society systematically cloisters power — economic, political and cultural — in the hands of an elite few, almost all white, and then bemoans the apathy of those from whom power is withheld.

We need more than performative symbols of solidarity. We need more than narrow, chaste legislation.

Charles Blow is right to call for “nothing short of a new civil rights act, the Civil Rights Act of 2020.”

To get it, we must organize, mobilize, and vote to change systems, policies, and our politics.

Again, police reform is a critical first step, and the House of Representatives took action to pass the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.”

However, it falls far short of what is necessary, even on the issue of police reform. For example, change should include how police and other systems or institutions interact and take actions against our children, particularly children of color.

As an example, on June 8, 2020, the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City (NYC) released a report on “Youth and Police” that highlighted the majority of substantiated complains filed against police overwhelmingly involved Black or Hispanic youth and included “cases where youth between the ages of 10 and 18 were policed while participating in seemingly innocuous activities such as playing, high-fiving, running, carrying backpacks, and jaywalking.”

That is unacceptable. Normal behavior is not criminal.

Consequently, police departments should have youth coordinators and youth-focused policing approaches and politics that eliminate the treatment of usual adolescent behavior in children of color as criminal.

WNBA star Lisa Leslie wrote a powerful piece in the Player’s Tribune entitled “Dear America” where she highlights the uncomfortable conversations Black parents have to have with their kids and society’s differential response to children based on the color of their skin. Leslie says:

That’s really what breaks my heart the most: the children.

She explains:

You could have a group of white boys on the street, about 17 years old, and they would be seen as a bunch of kids just hanging out. Replace those same white boys with a group of black boys, and they would no longer be seen as kids hanging out. They would be referred to as “thugs.” The narrative changes instantly and the next questions and thoughts are, What are they up to? They look suspicious! Which is pretty much what George Zimmerman said before he shot and killed young Trayvon Martin. He shot and killed him because he looked like he was “up to no good” as he walked home innocently wearing a hoodie on a winter evening holding a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.

It’s unfortunate, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that happens all the time. That’s the “talk” that we have to have with our kids.

In addition, we must break the “school-to-prison pipeline” caused, in large part, by a dramatic increase in the adoption of “zero tolerance” policies by some states and schools that have had a disproportionately negative impact on Black students.

This video from Spring Valley High School in South Carolina of a school resource officer (SRO) violently throwing a Black female student to the ground and dragging her across the floor shocked the public.

However, students at Spring Valley High were not shocked. The kids knew about the SRO’s reputation for aggression and use of excessive force and were wise to video the encounter. They knew the adults were failing to protect them from his behavior and would either not believe them, ignore them, or cover up the incident without video evidence.

Compounding the harm at Spring Valley High, one of the students, Niya Kenny, who spoke up and videoed the incident, was arrested and denied the right to graduate. The actions of these students should never have triggered a response from adults that included violence, arrests, pending delinquency changes, and denial of the fundamental rights of children.

This is yet another example is why we must listen to the voices of our children.

Sadly, institutions often fail to protect children, and instead, choose to double down or cover-up harm or abuse (e.g., Kids for Cash in Pennsylvania, the Sandusky scandal at Penn State, the sex abuse scandal surrounding USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals, etc.). History tells us that adults entrusted in the care of children often, instead, violate their rights.

In the Spring Valley High incident, SROs are paid public servants, so it is literally a case of society inflicting discrimination and violence against children of color.

There is no excuse for this.

Imagine if an adult entrusted in the care and protection of your child did this to them. It should never be tolerated. It is past time that we listen to our kids and recognize that they have fundamental rights.

The year before that incident was caught on video, the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education reported:

  • Black children are 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 48 percent of preschool children receiving out-of-school suspensions.
  • Black students are suspended or expelled at three times the rate of white students.
  • Black students are two times more likely to be subjected to a school-related arrest compared to their population of students.

Our systems need reform.

As a result, we support efforts to change laws to decriminalize normal child behavior and to eliminate or significantly reduce the number of in-school police officers or school resource officers (SROs), as they have led to dramatic increases in arrests, suspensions, and expulsions of students and subsequent referral to juvenile courts.

According to data reported in Vox, “…schools with an SRO had nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an SRO.”

Loyola University law professor Miranda Johnson points out:

When police walk the hallways of schools, the impact on children is not benign. Students who attend schools with police officers are more likely to be ticketed or referred to juvenile court for minor offenses, such as disorderly conduct or classroom disruption. They also are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Regular adolescent misbehavior becomes criminalized when viewed through a police lens.

School policing negatively impacts students of color, particularly black students, and students with disabilities. National data shows that black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately referred to law enforcement or arrested for school-based incidents. In Chicago last year, approximately 1 in 12 black students and students with disabilities were referred to the police by their school.

In response to the triple threat of systemic racism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic recession, students, who may be returning to school this fall, should be met with teachers, counselors, nurses, social workers, and paraprofessionals rather than police officers who, even among those that are well-intentioned, are not trained in education, child health, and child well-being.

Consequently, we support the youth-led #PoliceFreeSchools movement in Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Charlottesville, and other communities all across the country.

Similarly, we must end other forms of violence against children, such as corporal punishment. Christina Caron, parenting reporter for the New York Times, writes:

Corporal punishment is banned in the United States’ military training centers and can no longer be carried out as a sentence for a crime. It is prohibited at Head Start programs and in most juvenile detention facilities, too.

But in many states, there is one place where it is permissible to hit, spank or slap: school.

Disturbingly, 19 states allow corporal punishment.

According to an analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the states that allow it are disproportionately in the Southeast. The GAO also found that 38 percent of all students that were disciplined with corporal punishment were Black students in school year 2013–14 when their share of the student population was just 15 percent.

The fact that is it disproportionately used against children of color in the former states of the Confederacy is another form of structural racism and speaks to the urgent need for a national ban on violence against children in all of its forms.

In Congress, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) has introduced H.R. 727, the “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2019.” It is well past the time to end what is a government-sanctioned form of child abuse.

Beyond reforms related to police and schools, author Jason Overstreet is absolutely right to push for a much wider policy agenda to protect Black lives.

And when it comes to the youngest among us, the lives of our children and their care and well-being is a basic moral responsibility. Unfortunately, on the most basic and fundamental levels, we are failing them.

According to a study published in Health Affairs of mortality data in the United States and 19 other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD19) nations for the years 2001 to 2010:

…infants in the US had a 76 percent increased risk of death, and children ages 1–19 a 57 percent increased risk of death. If the US had achieved just the average childhood mortality rate of the OECD19 over the fifty-year study period, over 600,000 deaths could have been avoided — a rate of about 20,000 excess deaths per year by the turn of the century.

This is a terrible American tragedy, but the story is even worse for Black babies in America.

According to the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  • African Americans have 2.3 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites.
  • African American infants are 3.8 times as likely to die from complications related to low birth weight as compared to non-Hispanic white infants.
  • African Americans had over twice the sudden infant death syndrome mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites, in 2017.
  • In 2017, African American mothers were 2.3 times more likely than non-Hispanic white mothers to receive late or no prenatal care.

If Black Lives Matter, systemic racism, the devaluing of people, and the neglect of children in our society must be addressed. Black lives matter and it should begin with babies and children.

As Nick Kristof of the New York Times points out:

…a black boy born today in Washington, D.C., Missouri, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or a number of other states has a shorter life expectancy than a boy born in Bangladesh or India.

Where is our empathy, our morality, or our compassion for our children?

We must also address what the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has long referred to as the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline.” As CDF’s founder Marion Wright Edelman said more than a decade ago:

Child poverty and neglect, racial disparities in systems that serve children, and the pipeline to prison are not acts of God. They are America’s immoral political and economic choices that can and must be changed with strong political, corporate and community leadership.

No single sector or group can solve these child- and nation-threatening crises alone but all of us can together. Leaders must call us to the table and use their bully pulpits to replace our current paradigm of punishment as a first resort with a paradigm of prevention and early intervention. That will save lives, save families, save taxpayer money, and save our nation’s aspiration to be a fair society. Health and mental health care and quality education cost far less than prisons.

A Children’s Focus on Race Equity

The dangers facing children are critical but often ignored. Instead, their needs deserve our immediate and long-term attention. Author Clint Smith writes:

Our children have raised the stakes of this fight, while also shifting the calculus of how we move within it. It is one thing to be concerned for my own well-being, to navigate the country as a black man and to encounter its risks. It is another thing to be raising two black children and to consider both the dangers for yourself and the dangers that lie ahead for them.

The stakes and challenges are enormous for our children, and the agenda must be ambitious and comprehensive.

If we look across the entire range of Black lives, we cannot accept that the U.S. has the highest maternal, infant, and child mortality rates among all OECD nations. We must strive to be among the best. Our children deserve better.

We should work at every level of government to establish police free schools and to end corporal punishment. Schools should be a place of learning, exploration, nurture, and growth. Adults should provide children all they need to thrive and be successful rather than an emphasis on fear and punishment. Our children deserve better.

In addition, all of our schools should be equitably funded and places where students are inspired and given all the tools they need to achieve their full God-given potential. Our children deserve better.

We must Cover All Kids and ensure that every child has full access to high-quality, affordable, pediatric-focused health care that includes comprehensive developmental and pediatric-appropriate benefits and services. Our children deserve better.

We must not accept the fact that children are 54 percent more likely to live in poverty than adults and we call upon Congress to set a national goal to cut child poverty in half and to address policy failures, such as the fact that 23 million children in our society do not get the full Child Tax Credit because their parents earn too little. Our children deserve better.

We must end the separation of children from their parents along the border and stop the placement of children in cages. A government agency created to protect us against terrorism has been weaponized to inflict harm upon children with a policy where “cruelty is the point.”

Again, our children deserve better.

Where Are Our Leaders?

We stand at a critical junction. Where are our leaders bringing people together in order to meet the challenges of racial justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession, and a government prepared to fulfill its promise of equality and respect for all of its citizens.

We have a president that has chosen a path to retreat into the past, to promote violence, to build walls, and to commit, in columnist Catherine Rampell’s words, a “War on Children”.

Rampell writes:

…even without Trump’s baby jails and proposed Medicaid cuts, our country’s emphasis on children’s well-being is seriously deficient.

Last year, for the first time on record, we spent a greater share of the federal budget servicing the national debt than we did on children, according to an analysis out next week from First Focus on Children. Spending on children as a share of the federal budget is also expected to shrink over the coming decade, crowded out by both debt service and spending on the elderly.

Unfortunately, none of this should be all that surprising. In 1989, Trump called for the execution of five innocent adolescent Black youth for the rape of a white woman jogging in Central Park with a full-page ad in the New York Times with the headline “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!”

Trump never even apologized for falsely accusing those young Black boys, whose lives were destroyed by their wrongful arrest and convictions. All served time even though they were innocent and were subsequently exonerated in 2002. They deserved better from Trump and the American justice system back in 1989 and both they and their children deserve better.

A far better vision for both all of our citizens would be to embrace our growing racial and ethnic diversity, find common ground, common decency, and racial harmony, increase opportunities that enable everyone (no matter their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, zip code, or immigration status) to fulfill their greatest potential, invest in our children and families, and to set the nation on a path to end discrimination and inequality.

As Martin Luther King said:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Nearly 57 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered his “Civil Rights Address” from the White House on June 11, 1963, and his words still resonant and speak to us today far more than anything we have heard from the current president on matters of racial and social justice. As Kennedy said:

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated…

We face, therefore, a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. In cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives.

It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this is a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the fact that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all.

Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.

These words — every single word — are still relevant today.

President Barack Obama said in response to George Floyd’s death:

This shouldn’t be “normal” in 2020 America. It can’t be “normal.” If we want our children to grow up in a nation that lives up to its highest ideals, we can and must be better.

Our children are watching and listening, and they will emulate. As my First Focus on Children colleague Messellech Looby writes:

We, as a nation, are at a critical inflection point and the future we leave our children, and generations after that, will depend on the steps we take next.

Senate Must Use the Next Coronavirus Relief Package to Feed America’s Hungry Kids

| July 16, 2020 |

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Before COVID-19, 11.2 million children lived in a food-insecure household. The dual public health and economic crises caused by the pandemic have only exacerbated the problem, leaving nearly 14 million children without enough to eat. Child hunger spikes in the summer with schools out of session, so that number likely will rise. With school openings this fall still uncertain, children may continue to lose out on free- or reduced-price nutritious meals.

Food insecurity — which often leads to poor nutrition — directly influences health and well-being throughout a child’s life. Food insecurity is specifically associated with poorer physical and mental health, lower school performance, and diminished psycho-social functioning. During this difficult time, Congress must ensure our children are kept fed and well-nourished so that the negative impacts of food insecurity will not be felt for years to come.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Families First Coronavirus Response (Families First) Act have increased food assistance benefits, but many have been left out. Nearly 40 percent of low-income families that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP) have not seen a single increase in benefits, including nearly 5 million children. The Pandemic-EBT program, authorized in the Families First Act to provide families with electronic benefit debit cards to replace lost school meals, had reached only 15 percent of the 30 million children it was intended to help two months after its launch. The program is due to expire at the end of September.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that the next aid package will be aimed at “kids, jobs, and healthcare.” Extending and increasing nutrition programs needs to be high on the list of ways we put kids first. The following are policies that should be included in any upcoming aid package.

Increase maximum SNAP benefits by 15% – and 20% for families with children.

SNAP is an incredibly effective anti-poverty measure that not only helps families get food on the table, but also boosts the economy. Every $1 in SNAP benefits generates $1.50 to $1.80 in economic activity, and it is spent quickly. With children as 44 percent of all SNAP participants, the program serves as the first line of defense against child hunger and is linked to improved health outcomes. The previous aid packages allowed states to request emergency SNAP benefit increases and provided $15.5 billion to the SNAP program to address rising caseloads and short-term benefit increases. However, nearly 40 percent of low-income families that already received the maximum SNAP benefits saw no increase in the money they received, as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers only increased benefits up to the maximum monthly amount. The maximum benefit, therefore, needs to be increased by 15 percent – and 20 percent for families with children – to ensure that benefits are going to those who need it most.

Extend Pandemic-EBT Through the Summer and School Year 2020-2021.

The Pandemic-EBT program has helped feed many children during this crisis. Currently, 49 states have been approved to operate a Pandemic-EBT program. However, the crisis doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon, and an extension of the program beyond September 2020 is needed for struggling families. The program gives families $5.70 per day, per student that was eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals during the 2019-2020 school year. While some families received their benefits soon after schools closed, others are just now getting them retroactively. Families are issued an EBT card loaded with the benefits. The P-EBT program should be extended through the next school year in order to allow states to provide benefits for children missing out on school meals. Furthermore, current P-EBT policy stipulates that schools or districts need to be closed for a consecutive five school days during a public health emergency designation in order for families to be eligible. As many states and cities begin releasing their back to school plans, it is clear that there needs to be more flexibility in determining eligibility. For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has issued a plan for the city’s schools that would limit classroom attendance to a maximum of three days a week. The P-EBT program therefore must allow flexibility as many schools and districts plan for partial re-openings.

Shore Up School Nutrition Programs that are Facing Higher Costs and Lower Revenue.

More than 90 percent of school meal program directors anticipate or are uncertain about a financial loss for their programs for the previous school year, according to a survey by the School Nutrition Association. The survey also found that combined total losses for 861 school districts exceed $626.4 million. School nutrition programs have been an important source of food for children, and participating schools have reported serving 134 million meals in April 2020 alone. Any new aid package should include emergency funding for school nutrition programs that rely on reimbursements so that millions of children continue to receive nutritious meals.

Ensure Timely and Safe Access to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The WIC program provides nutrition benefits for low-income pregnant or postpartum women, infants, and children under five. Proper nutrition in utero and in the first two years of life is essential to a child’s healthy neurological development and lifelong mental health, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Congress must ensure that WIC participants continue to receive benefits in a timely manner and provide further flexibility for enrollment for newly eligible families. The Families First Act granted the USDA the authority to approve waivers that allow WIC providers to conduct remote appointments, certify new participants and issue benefits remotely, and expand the allowable brands and package sizes of WIC-approved food items for the duration of the public health emergency. However, these waivers are set to expire Sept. 30. Any future coronavirus aid package must allow USDA to continue approving such waivers at least through next year. Congress must also increase the Cash Value Benefit that is used to purchase nutritious foods, raise children’s eligibility from age 5 to age 6, increase postpartum eligibility for up to two years, and extend infant and child certification for two years.

The coronavirus crisis presents a pivotal moment for the health of our nation’s children. While the CARES Act and Families First provided some critical relief, Congress needs to act now to ensure the health and safety of our children going forward. For more on these and other policy recommendations, see our April 2020 letter to Congress.

The share of federal spending on kids just hit its lowest level since 2016

| July 6, 2020 |

Politicians love to talk about kids. Just recently, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that any future pandemic funding should focus on “kids, jobs, and health care.”

But talking is not doing. New research from our budget team here at First Focus on Children finds that the share of U.S. federal spending on children has hit its lowest level in five years, even as the global pandemic threatens to reverse economic gains made since the Great Recession.

As the budget process kicks into high gear this week, we need lawmakers to put our money where their mouths are.

Children make up one-quarter of the U.S. population. Yet just 7.48% of all federal spending went toward their well-being in FY2020, according to our most recent federal budget analysis. The numbers represent a 2% decrease in share from FY2019 and a nearly 9% decrease across the last five fiscal years from FY2016 to FY2020.  President Trump’s FY2021 budget request would push that share even lower, to just 7.32%.

The First Focus 2019 Children’s Budget revealed that the United States  — for the first time — spent a greater share of the federal budget servicing the national debt than supporting the children who will inherit it. That trend continued in our FY2020 analysis and will likely deepen as the pandemic continues to batter the economy.

The Trump Administration’s FY2021 budget request would reduce the share of federal spending on children by another 2.1% to just 7.32%. The reduction represents an inflation-adjusted cut of $21 billion on programs serving children in FY2021. The president also seeks to eliminate or financially suffocate 55 current programs that aid low-income students, subsidize heating costs for low-income kids, and otherwise support children’s health, education and well-being.  The president also proposes cutting Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and other essential children’s health care by $1 trillion, money that would go toward tax cuts for the wealthy.

COVID-19 and its economic fallout have increased child hunger and homelessness, interrupted the education of millions of K-12 students who lack internet access at home, and claimed millions of jobs. Experts predict that widespread unemployment could spike child poverty by as much as 53%. 

Congress must use the upcoming budget process to reverse these trends. Only by putting children first can lawmakers hope to blunt the pandemic’s impact on the future.

First Focus on Children will release its comprehensive analysis of the federal budget and the more than 200 programs aimed at children this fall.