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| September 28, 2022 |

In anticipation of today’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, First Focus on Children President Bruce Lesley issued the following statement:

“Today’s conference represents the first serious look at hunger and nutrition in this country in a half-century and the first opportunity to end childhood hunger and all of its detrimental effects. Over the last three years we’ve learned that government policy can in fact reduce hunger and food insecurity among children and we urge attendees to outline concrete steps for achieving that goal and to rely on these proven policies. We are encouraged by the focus on addressing children’s and families’ access to affordable food and supporting children’s play spaces, and applaud the comprehensive approach to solving these issues taken by the Biden Adminstration strategy released in advance of today’s event. By acknowledging the interconnected factors that affect children’s nutritional health — economic and geographic inequities, lack of knowledge on importance of nutrition, racial and ethnic background — lawmakers have the tools to produce clear solutions.”Today’s White House hunger conference must outline clear solutions for children

In a June letter, First Focus on Children and more than two dozen partner advocates urged the Administration to explore some of the very issues under consideration, such as improvements to the food and nutrition security provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; how to support and strengthen the role that educational institutions, childcare through college, play in solving food insecurity; racial and ethnic disparities in child food and nutrition insecurity; improvements to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the recommendations of reducing sugar, trans fats, and sodium; investing and building upon the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children’s (WIC) ability to address the nutritional needs of millions of women and children; ensuring that all children are able to be physically active in safe and accessible environments; and the importance of the gut-brain connection and its impact on behavioral health and academic achievement.

It’s way too early to declare victory over child poverty

| September 20, 2022 |

Child poverty in this country last year dropped to the lowest rate ever recorded and, according to new research, has declined by nearly 60% over the last three decades. This astounding news dramatically illustrates the power of poverty-fighting initiatives and proves a single, profound truth: Ending child poverty is a policy decision. 

One that many lawmakers still haven’t made. 

According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes government assistance such as tax credits, income supports, and nutrition assistance, U.S. policies cut the national child poverty rate nearly in half in 2021, dropping it 4.5 percentage points to 5.2%, the biggest year-to-year decline on record. The research organization Child Trends has tracked a 59% decline in child poverty since 1993. Both analyses identify multiple factors in these declines and highlight the outsized role of public policy improvements through government action. 

The proven ability of lawmakers to cut child poverty nearly in half in a single year, especially in the midst of a pandemic, provides evidence that we know how to reduce child poverty and that we have the tools to end it completely — if we choose. The news of these historic declines should not allow lawmakers, advocates, and policymakers to declare victory, but rather pledge to finish the job.

What we know: 

Tax credits wield extraordinary power to cut child poverty. 

In 2021, Congress temporarily improved the Child Tax Credit by raising the amount of the credit, offering it monthly for half the year, and making children whose families have little or no income eligible for the full credit for the first time. These improvements are largely responsible for reducing child poverty by 46% in 2021, lifting nearly 3 million children — including 1 million children under age 6 — above the poverty line. They also contributed to narrowing the racial poverty gap, reducing poverty levels for Black, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian, and Alaska Native children to the lowest on record.

Families spent their Child Tax Credit on food, child care, clothing, educational materials, and other basic necessities for their children. Some parents and caretakers reported that this additional money gave them a lifeline, others said it gave them a cushion so they weren’t constantly worried about making ends meet. They said it made them feel like lawmakers cared about them, and felt that their struggle was finally being recognized. Increased household income also reduces parental stress, giving parents more time and mental energy for their kids.

As documented by Child Trends, the role of the social safety net in reducing child poverty grew substantially from 1993 to 2019, with the expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit responsible for much of the decline in child poverty along with standout economic and labor market factors including overall lower unemployment rates, increases in single mother labor force participation, and increases to state-level minimum wage. However, Child Trends finds that even though the social safety net currently lifts more children out of poverty than in the 1990s, their economic well-being is roughly the same. Because the EITC is directly tied to earnings, it is much less helpful for years when families experience significant stretches of unemployment or very low earnings. Given the volatility and unpredictability of the labor market for low-wage, hourly workers who do not control their schedules and often receive few or no benefits such as paid family leave, sick days, or other supports that make it possible for a parent to maintain work, the EITC must be paired with a fully refundable CTC so that children have consistent access to resources, particularly critical during tough economic times.

Work requirements don’t work: 

More than 25 years of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and findings from a 2019 nonpartisan, landmark study from the National Academy of Sciences confirm that tying work requirements to benefits does not reduce poverty or boost economic security for families. Instead, these requirements create bureaucratic hoops for parents or caretakers who often already are working, with no flexibility for the volatile nature of the job market, particularly the low-wage job market, and no support for families to overcome the barriers they face to obtaining employment that will provide them with economic stability. Work requirements have drastic consequences for children, undermining access to programs that improve children’s health and educational outcomes.

The past year also demonstrated that expanding the Child Tax Credit significantly reduced material hardship and household food insecurity with “no significant differences in the changes in employment between December 2020 and December 2021 for adults who received the payments and adults who did not receive the payments.” In fact, the Child Tax Credit helps families, especially single mothers, increase their labor force participation by allowing them to afford child care, transportation, and other necessities that help them get to work. 

The dramatic spike in unemployment rates in the early part of the pandemic alongside school and child care closures make clear that parents and caretakers experience unexpected changes in their employment circumstances, and children in households with frontline, low-wage workers who lack access to affordable child care, paid sick days or paid family and medical leave suffer the most during economic downturns. One of the lessons we must take away from the COVID crisis and its economic fallout is that instead of attaching burdensome work requirements to benefits, we need a system that provides consistent support to children as they undergo critical stages of brain development, and at the same time helps parents and caretakers obtain and maintain employment that provides a steady household income by providing access to paid family and medical leave, affordable child care, transportation support, job training, affordable higher education and more.

Parenting and Caretaking is work

Our society’s view on the type of work that “deserves” compensation is also deeply flawed. Child rearing and caretaking of family members results in large gains to the collective whole, yet goes uncompensated. Elderly grandparents caring for grandchildren, parents with disabilities, or parents caring for children with disabilities or special health care needs have particular barriers to economic security. We can become a nation that values our families by recognizing these contributions and the way they underpin our country’s economic success.

“Deservedness” standards deliberately create winners and losers 

The anti-poverty programs created prior to the pandemic helped significantly reduce child poverty over the last three decades, as Child Trends points out, but the assistance landed largely on children whose caretakers were able to maintain their employment. This program design specifically — and deliberately — excludes children with the greatest needs, creating winners and losers, and perpetuating disparities and injustices that are entwined with our country’s long history of systemic racism and discrimination. In contrast, the improvements Congress made in 2021 — in particular, the expansion of the Child Tax Credit — help get aid to the children who need it most. 

Children of color, including Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native children, continue to experience poverty at a higher poverty rate than their white peers. Children in immigrant families face higher poverty rates than their nonimmigrant peers because they often remain ineligible for assistance due to drastic exclusions passed in the 1990s. Children living in Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories are not accounted for in federal poverty data and they lack equal access to federal benefits as part of a long history of racism and discrimination against Americans living in the territories.

The government’s definition of “poverty” also poses problems. The poverty threshold in 2021 stood at roughly $30,000 for a family of four with two children. The Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator shows that in most areas of the country, a family of four with two children needs at least $80,000 a year to have an adequate standard of living — and in many places, they need much more. By these standards, even families who live at double the poverty threshold cannot make ends meet. A realistic view of material hardship and deprivation must figure into calculations of progress to ensure that anti-poverty measures are making a meaningful impact.


While this recent progress on child poverty is unprecedented and worth celebrating, it is not the final word. According to Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy, roughly 4 million children slipped back into poverty in January 2022 after Congress allowed the improvements to the Child Tax Credit to expire. The expiration of the CTC improvements and other aid, combined with high food costs and rising rents, sent many families with children back to experiencing significant material hardship. Congress must immediately extend the CTC improvements to avoid further backtracking on this historic progress

American voters agree: By a 72-21% margin, likely voters polled in a recent survey by Lake Research Partners support the 2021 improvements to the Child Tax Credit, with the majority expressing intense support. A large majority of voters —a 6-to-1 margin — also believe the country invests too little in reducing child poverty.

Fortunately, First Focus Campaign for Children’s Congressional Champions continue to insist that improvements to the CTC are included in any end-of-the-year legislative measure that would provide tax breaks for big corporations. In a joint statement, Senate Democrats Brown (OH), Bennet (CO), and Booker (NJ) and Democratic Representatives DeLauro (CT), DelBene (WA), and Torres (NY) urged passage of CTC improvements before the end of the year: “We should have never allowed this critical program to lapse, and we should not extend corporate tax breaks at the end of this year without also extending the expanded Child Tax Credit.”

Maintaining recent progress is just a start. Even one child in poverty is one too many. Congress must also codify a national child poverty reduction target to build the political will needed to reach all children.

We are not only morally obligated to end child poverty, but it also makes smart economic sense for us to do so. The National Academy of Sciences confirms that reducing child poverty not only has direct benefits on individual children’s healthy development but also delivers a significant return on investment for the U.S. economy.

Our baseline cannot be the status quo. It must be what lawmakers, academics, advocates, media, and the American public now know — clearly and definitively — is possible.

Free school meals are a clear win for children & families

| August 10, 2022 |

School nutrition is a vital part of a child’s education and their overall health, well-being, and development. Without the proper nutrients, students are more likely to develop learning disabilities and struggle mentally and physically. However, too many children in this country do not have consistent and affordable access to healthy food. Nearly 17% of children live in homes affected by food insecurity and this has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Children who participate in school meal programs under the National School Lunch (NSLP) and School Breakfast (SBP) Programs rely on the meals for roughly half of their daily calories. When schools shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, school nutrition programs served as lifelines for struggling families, and were able to continue providing meals to students in creative and efficient ways, such as Pandemic EBT. However, these programs continue to be challenged by widespread supply chain issues and inflation, which has made it more difficult and expensive for schools to purchase and serve food. According to the School Nutrition Association, on top of food shortages, 95% of schools have staff shortages

President Biden has signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, extending some school meal flexibilities through the next school year. The law extends meal delivery options through the summer and increases federal reimbursements through the next school year, which will provide schools with extra funding to help fight the rising costs of food and labor. But many fear it does not go far enough as many children will lose access to free or reduced-price school meals in the coming school year, forcing schools to redetermine whether millions of students are eligible for the program and creating even more administrative burden for strained programs.

Overall, the best solution would be to provide free school meals to all students, regardless of income. Healthy school meals for all would ensure students have consistent access to school meals, even as prices rise and nutrition programs face staffing shortages. Schools provide meals for more than 30 million children daily. These meals often are the most nutritious meals a child has access to, and research has shown that school meals led to a decrease in obesity among children in poverty. Free school meals help food-insecure children in all aspects — healthy eating helps children academically, physically, and mentally. Free school meals are a clear win for children and families.

Watch: Child Nutrition Policy 101 and Q&A with USDA Deputy Undersecretary Stacy Dean

| July 28, 2022 |

Food and nutrition insecurity among children, particularly children of color and children from low-income backgrounds, remains stubbornly high, and dietary diseases among children are increasing. The implications of federal nutrition policy on children’s health, development, and academic well-being are numerous.

During a briefing by First Focus on Children and The Education Trust this week, experts from USDA, the American Heart Association, and the Center for the Science in Public Interest outlined the following opportunities:

  • Child Nutrition Reauthorization: The introduction of the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, marks the first time in 12 years that Congress has a chance to update and modernize federal child nutrition programs that reach millions of children, such as WIC and the School Lunch Program.
  • Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health: First Focus, Ed Trust, and 30 other organizations sent a letter to the White House urging planners to prioritize children and youth at its September conference on hunger, nutrition, and health — the first one since 1969.
  • USDA will reinforce nutrition standards for school meals: The Department of Agriculture plans to issue a durable rule on the nutrition standards that schools must meet, a move that will ensure that school meals meet the required nutritional quality and dietary guidelines. Schools are currently operating under a transitional rule, aimed at helping them continue to recover from the pandemic. First Focus on Children outlines the necessity of this rule in a comment to the department.

“It is just so abundantly clear that we need to improve our children’s overall diet and health,” USDA Deputy Undersecretary Stacy Dean said during the briefing.

In addition to Undersecretary Dean’s insight, our expert panel from the American Heart Association and the Center for the Science in Public Interest shared the following resources

2 troubling SCOTUS decisions for schools and students

| July 15, 2022 |

Joe Kennedy poses in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the court on April 25.
(Win McNamee | Getty Images News via Getty Images)

Two recent Supreme Court rulings – Kennedy v. Bremerton and Carson v. Makin – will accelerate the decay of the separation of Church and state and of First Amendment rights within schools.

In the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton, high school football coach Joseph Kennedy led Christian prayer on the field and in the locker room. The school district asked him to stop conducting the open demonstrations of religion, reasoning that they could be considered exclusionary and coercive to students of a different faith. After Kennedy refused their requests and was placed on administrative leave, he filed a suit against the district. The Supreme Court, by a 6-3 margin, recently ruled in favor of Kennedy. Under the guise of religious freedom, and protection against religious persecution, the Supreme Court set a precedent that open religious practice is protected in public schools, a sphere long considered secular. This decision may well give cover to coercive religious practice, verging on proselytization, taking hold in the classroom.

In Carson v. Makin, the court ruled, again by a 6-3 margin, that if states give public funding vouchers to any private schools, these vouchers must also be made available to religious schools, including those that preach and pursue discriminatory measures against LGBTQ+ students.

The Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Under our current Supreme Court, separation of church and state becomes its own perverse inversion. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “the court leads us to a place where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.” The Supreme Court is leading us into a new era: where protection is discrimination; where protecting rights is a coercive act and to coerce is a right; where up is down. The inability of justices to agree on “basic facts” exposes the fallibility of the Supreme Court as an unelected institution with massive power.

Some allege “indoctrination” in schools, that schools restrict free thought and expression by students by, for example, reckoning with America’s history of racism. But the greatest threat to free speech and free thought within schools and against teachers and students is the movement to restrict discussion and conversation, over what can be said in the classroom. The true proponents of schools as tools of indoctrination are those who impugn it the loudest.

Under Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education’s primary goal was clear: Dismantle public schools and uplift private and charter, particularly religious, alternatives. DeVos fought to open the public purses to private and religious schools. She proclaimed that “prohibiting religiously affiliated public charter schools is unconstitutional.” The Supreme Court is carrying on that fight.

The Family Security Act 2.0 Creates Winners and Losers

| July 8, 2022 |

Our children are facing some of the most challenging times seen in our nation’s history. America’s historically high rate of child poverty and significant racial poverty gap are among the most pressing of these challenges and are the root cause of so many of the obstacles to success faced by too many of our nation’s children and grandchildren.

The American people understand this. Recent polling of likely voters by the Lake Research Partners found that by over a 6-1 margin, Americans think we are investing too little in addressing child poverty and are very concerned that children are the poorest group in our nation. By a 86% concerned (61% strongly) to 12% not concerned margin, voters are worried by the 2019 landmark National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) study analysis that estimated “child poverty costs our society up to $1.1 trillion a year due to higher crime, poor health outcomes, and lower-income levels when children living in poverty grow up.”

The good news is that we know what works to reduce child poverty. That same NASEM study found that a child allowance, operating as an extension of the Child Tax Credit, is the most powerful tool we have to combat child poverty and narrow the racial poverty gap. Extensive research shows when households with children receive cash transfers, they spend it on resources that support their children’s healthy development, improving their physical and behavioral health and educational outcomes, and leading them to earn more as adults. Increased household income also relieves parental stress, giving parents more time and mental energy for their children.

Policies that improve the lives and well-being of children receive strong support from the American people. In the Lake Research Partners poll, voters favor the provisions in the improved Child Tax Credit by a 72-21% margin with parents favoring the policy 77-18%.

These improvements to the Child Tax Credit were included in the American Rescue Plan Act and cut child poverty by nearly 30% in December 2021 and would have grown to an estimated 40+% if it had been extended in 2022. Households used the monthly credit to meet their children’s basic needs, leading to significant reductions in household food insecurity and material hardship. We will see even greater poverty reduction and a narrowing of the racial poverty gap in annual poverty data for 2021, as additional eligible families receive the rest or all of their Child Tax Credit after filing taxes this year.

Unfortunately, these improvements have expired. Despite the hard work of many Congressional champions and anti-poverty advocates, they have yet to be extended, even as 37 Senators and 170 Members of the House have co-sponsored the American Family Act, and proposed legislation that aided in designing the ARP provisions. As negotiations continue, recently Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT), Steve Daines (R-MT), and Richard Burr (R-NC) released the Family Security Act 2.0, an alternate proposal to reform the Child Tax Credit. This is an updated version of a 2021 proposal from Senator Romney with the same name.

This latest version of the proposal, detailed here by the Niskanen Center, would result in many low-income households with children, especially those with more than one child, receiving a larger credit than under the current, pre-American Rescue Plan Act version of the Child Tax Credit through both an increased maximum credit amount and a modified per-child phase-in rate. Households with only $10,000 of annual income in the previous tax year would get the full credit for each child up to six children, and the new per-child phase-in rate would begin at the first dollar of earnings rather than at $2500 of earnings under current law. The updated proposal also eliminates the current credit cap that limits a household’s refund to $1500 rather than the full $2000 and includes 17-year-olds, who are left out of current law but were included in the American Rescue Plan Act improvements.

Yet for many children with the least resources, the proposal provides little or no benefit and even leaves some worse off than the current version of the Child Tax Credit. Gains for low-income families would be offset by cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit and elimination of the option for head-of-household filing tax status. Children in households with no income would receive nothing under this proposal, and children in single-parent households stand to lose the most from the cuts to the EITC and loss of the head-of-household filing tax status, which are used to partially fund the proposal.

Citizen children with immigrant parents who both file taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) would now be deemed ineligible to receive the Child Tax Credit, as well as children being cared for by grandparents or other kinship caregivers who don’t have full legal custody and may opt not to claim custody for a variety of reasons.

Our colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 7 million families, including 10 million children, with annual incomes less than $50,000 would lose an average of more than $800 a year, with Black and Hispanic children being disproportionately harmed.

The families that stand to lose the most under the Family Security Act 2.0 are also families with the greatest barriers to work and economic stability and thereby most in need of the Child Tax Credit — which has been shown to help families maintain steady employment and afford childcare.

In contrast, high-income households with children with annual incomes up to $400,000 (for married couples) would receive the full amount of the credit per child. Romney, Daines, and Burr add higher-income pregnant households to the Child Tax Credit. They could now get part of the credit 4 months before their child is due, which is in sharp contrast to many poor children who would see little or no benefit under the proposal.

Finally, the proposal is paid for, in part, by eliminating the child portion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) and cutting the EITC, thereby pulling from existing credits that support households with children and going against the public sentiment that we already spend too little on our nation’s children. The Child Tax Credit would also now be administered through the Social Security Administration, leading to concerns that the money a family receives from the Child Tax Credit could reduce the benefits that a household is eligible for.

All of these changes result in the Family Security Act 2.0 having a much lesser impact on reducing child poverty than the American Rescue Plan Act or even Senator Romney’s previous version. In fact, the Niskanen Center estimates that the Family Security Act 1.0 would have cut child poverty by an estimated 33%, but the positive impact drops to just 13% under the Family Security Act 2.0 due to these changes.

Changes to the Child Tax Credit should prioritize improving the best interests and well-being of children, including reducing child poverty. Voters agree. An overwhelming majority – 82% -10% — agree that federal policy involving children should “always be governed” by a standard that makes the safety, protection, or well-being of children “the first priority.”

Unfortunately, the revisions made to the Family Security Act 2.0 no longer prioritize child poverty reduction. It is no longer even included in the listed benefits of the proposal text. This is a tragic mistake — morally, economically, and politically. The National Academy of Sciences confirms that reducing child poverty not only has direct implications for individual children’s healthy development and future success but also has a significant return on investment for our economy.

The public supports the Child Tax Credit improvements made in the American Rescue Plan Act that significantly reduced child poverty, so much so that voters are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports them (and conversely, less likely to support a candidate who opposes them) by a 5-to-1 margin.

While the Family Security Act 2.0 takes some steps in the right direction towards improving the Child Tax Credit, it creates winners and losers and significantly departs from the initial and critically important goal of reducing child poverty. We need a Child Tax Credit that helps children who need it most and helps ensure that every child in the U.S. has an equal chance of success, and we should look to the American Rescue Plan Act and the American Family Act introduced by our Congressional Champions as a starting place to do just that.

How Hidden Foster Care Harms Children and Parents of Color

| July 7, 2022 |

Photo by William Fortunato

This article originally appeared in The Imprint.

I felt an icy cold panic in the core of my being when my ahijada’s (goddaughter’s) mother called and explained that Child Protection Services (CPS) was threatening to put her and her sister in foster care if I didn’t take them in. The only reasonable answer I could give was “Absolutely, yes. They can come here.”

My husband and I vowed to our ahijada at her quinceañera that we would always support and protect her. She and her sister needed us, and I wasn’t about to turn them away — especially because I knew the damage that foster care can inflict.

I am Aubrey Edwards-Luce and I am a Black woman. For five years, I was a lawyer representing kids in foster care. I know how hard it can be for teenagers to get out of the child welfare system. Bias and a lack of accountability results in teenage girls of color, in particular, enduring the perpetual trauma that comes with frequent movement from foster placement to foster placement. Black girls make up 23% of all girls in foster care, but comprise 36% of girls who experience 10 or more placements in the system, according to federal data.

What I did not know was that there is a name for the arrangement that CPS was initiating for me, the girls and their mother. It is called “hidden foster care.” And in hidden foster care cases, child welfare agencies effectively separate children from allegedly abusive or neglectful parents while eluding court oversight and other legal obligations. Agencies are not legally bound to provide hidden foster care families the essential services or financial support that they are required to provide to families in the formal foster care process.

Unlike their formal foster care counterparts, caregivers in hidden foster care often get no financial support from the agency to pay for the cost of raising a child, and the children and parents may not receive services to help them reunify or figure out a permanent caregiving arrangement. Contrary to formal cases, there is no court oversight to monitor children in hidden foster care or check to see whether they are safe, healthy and have their basic needs met. 

Agencies are not even required to report how many children they are ushering into hidden foster care. A recent investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times shows that the scope of unjust family separation is even greater than any government agency has the data to comprehensively understand.

Recently, the U.S. Children’s Bureau has been focused on supporting kin caregivers and helping children maintain their familial and cultural bonds. Addressing hidden foster care is vital to achieving these goals. The consequences of this version of foster care — disruption to the child’s relationship with their parents and siblings, lack of access to much-needed services and supports, trauma, tension in the family’s support network — deserve greater recognition and acknowledgment from the Children’s Bureau, particularly because they add to the many challenges facing children and young people of color in an increasingly hostile society. 

In my case, the atmosphere of distrust created by CPS’s threat to remove the girls to foster care weakened the network that we had built in order to endure crises. Instead of being a part of the family’s safety net, I was seen as part of a surveillance system. Instead of being positioned to help reunite the children with their mother, the agency instructed me to not let the girls go home until she did what the agency said. As a new mother who is Black and aware that structural racism and individual bias have resulted in 53% of Black families being investigated by CPS and Black children being removed into foster care at an alarming and disproportionate rate, I felt pressured to follow CPS orders. We needed to work together to keep my ahijada and her sister safe and to help them heal, but the pressure and the mistrust corroded the relationship between me and my ahijada’s family. It took months before we could mend our relationship and effectively co-parent.

We needed the state agency’s established connections to service providers to heal from the mental health crises this ordeal had caused, but we couldn’t bear more CPS threats or ultimatums. So, I tried to access help on my own. I found that because we were in an informal arrangement, providers asked me what right I had to request help for the girls far more frequently than they asked what help the girls needed. I had to weigh how much of the girls’ history to disclose to providers that worked in systems with long histories of disproportionately ushering children of color into foster care, the very system I was working so hard to avoid. 

Those closest to me have asked why my husband and I didn’t fight to get into the formal foster care system. Beyond the harms that children face in foster care, I understood that bringing the girls into the formal foster care system would have meant that their mom, my husband and I would have lost authority over the girls’ placement. The state agency could have removed the girls from our house at its complete discretion. While the agency started this traumatic family separation, at least my ahijada’s mother and I had control over when and how the family came back together. For my ahijada, who was already used to spending all Sunday with my family, the knowledge that she was going to be somewhere she knew with people that loved her for as long as she needed gave her some much needed peace.

I hope the Children’s Bureau makes good on its commitment to supporting kin caregivers and promoting racial justice. I hope it embraces its responsibility to all children, including those in hidden foster care. The leading federal agency must fully acknowledge past and current racial disparities, not only among children who enter the formal foster care system, but also among those who are separated from their parents at the urging of the child welfare system without due process, ongoing support or oversight. 

It starts with knowing the facts. The Children’s Bureau must collect the data and the narratives necessary to fully acknowledge the harm that this practice has caused and lead alongside those of us who have lived this nightmare as we help state agencies find a solution. 

The solution to the problem of hidden foster care won’t be easy to find. Hidden foster care happens differently, even within the same state. But I am convinced that the solution has to include an opportunity for children to use their voice, for parents to have notice of (and a way to enforce) their right to determine their children’s care and custody, and for kin caregivers to receive community-based support without risking surveillance.

David Noble, a policy associate at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, contributed to the writing of this op-ed. 

Children’s Week begins with organizations urging action

| June 13, 2022 |

Children’s advocacy organizations from around the country kicked off the fifth annual Children’s Week with a schedule of events aimed at urging Congress to better protect the health, safety, and well-being of America’s children.

Children’s Week, which is hosted by the bipartisan advocacy organization First Focus on Children, runs from June 12-18. Children’s Week 2022 unfolds as the country slides backwards on historic gains made for children. With robust leadership and near-unprecedented commitment to children during the pandemic, lawmakers made the most significant investment in decades in children. Legislation passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic — including the improved Child Tax Credit — increased the share of federal spending on children from 7.64% to a historic 11.15%.

Since then, more than 3 million children have slid back into poverty as emergency measures expired. More than 6 million children are poised to lose their health insurance. Hunger will once again ripple through schools and families as federal nutrition waivers end on June 30. And — also once again — an American community is mourning the loss of elementary school children and teachers murdered in their classrooms.

“The kids are not alright,” said Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus on Children. “Children’s Week shines a light on the challenges facing our children — challenges like hunger, homelessness, poverty, gun violence. But we must act in the best interests of our children each and every day. We look forward to working with members of Congress and our partner advocates to make caring for our children the norm, not the exception. Our kids can’t wait any longer for adults to do right by them.”

Throughout the week, First Focus on Children and partner advocates will brief members of Congress on Capitol Hill, host webinars and Twitter chats, and engage Hill staff on important decisions around FY 2023 spending, economic aid, tax credits, gun violence and other challenges facing children.

Organizations from around the children’s community are lending their support.

“If children are the future, it is time to act like it. From gun control to family separation to climate change, we need to stop offering words without action. Our children are suffering, and our political leaders’ response has been woefully insufficient. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need to act boldly to make sure our policies match the rhetoric. Children’s issues are family issues. They are community issues. We must make them a national issue.” — Shereen A. White, Director of Advocacy and Policy, Children’s Rights

“ChildFund is so excited to be part of this event featuring an all-youth panel. Young people are the best advocates for themselves and are often underestimated in their ability to affect change. We know that far too many children and youth are not receiving some of the critical support they need from donors like the U.S. government, and it’s critical that we hear from young people directly about the challenges they are facing in this moment where COVID, global conflicts, and climate change are all colliding. I am looking forward to hearing their unique perspectives on foreign policy and the best solutions to motivate us all and galvanize new energy.” — Erin Kennedy, Senior Director for External Engagement, ChildFund, which is a lead sponsor of the Children’s Week briefing “Trailblazers of Today: U.S. Foreign Assistance & the Impact of Youth Engagement,”Tuesday, 6/14, 12pmET. Rayburn HOB 2044. Register at this link.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics is proud to support Children’s Week and join with other organizations dedicated to prioritizing children’s needs. We are living in an especially consequential moment for children’s health right now. This Children’s Week and beyond, pediatricians will continue to show up and speak up for children, on everything from ending gun violence to ensuring they have access to health care. We will not rest until we see meaningful change.” — Mark Del Monte, JD, AAP CEO/Executive Vice President

“We are excited to commemorate Children’s Week and join the call to action on behalf of all our nation’s children. Children of immigrants represent one-quarter of all U.S. kids, which is why it’s critical that our immigration policies promote child wellbeing and family unity. Our country’s future depends on each child — regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status — having access to the education, health care, and other critical services they need to achieve their full potential.” — Wendy Cervantes, Director of Immigration and Immigrant Families at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and co-lead of the Children Thrive Action Network.

“While unprecedented strides in supporting children and families have been made in recent years — particularly during the pandemic — we must keep the momentum going. When we invest in children, we’re investing in our future — our future doctors, lawyers, teachers and entrepreneurs. We’re excited to celebrate Children’s Week to shed even more light on issues critical to the success and well-being of children and urge Congress to take action. Our future will be all the brighter for it.” — Mary Nugent, Lead Advocate for Early Childhood Education Policy, Save the Children.

“Young people should be seen, heard, and represented — in court, in legislatures, and everywhere decisions are made about their future. Children’s Week reminds us that every policy issue is a kids’ issue, and that we must advance justice together.” — Allison Green, Legal Director, National Association of Counsel for Children.

“When last year’s expanded Child Tax Credit went into effect, the child poverty rate plummeted almost overnight. Letting millions of kids now fall back into poverty is unacceptable. Policymakers should be building on this kind of transformational policy, not letting it expire. It’s up to Congress to pass a permanently refundable monthly Child Tax Credit, and other bold policies that are the foundation of a more equitable future.” — Joanne Carter, Executive Director, RESULTS

For a full list of events and participants, please visit the Children’s Week 2022 website.  

Julie Beckett’s Legacy Lives On

| June 10, 2022 |

The loss of Julie Beckett, who passed away on May 13th in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was felt across the country. Individuals, families, current and former Members of Congress, Medicaid experts and advocates, and so many others responded with love, respect, and heartfelt tributes.

Tributes were posted from a variety of sources – from families for whom Julie’s advocacy changed their lives, to state and federal government bureaus, and from members of Congress including this speech by Senator Grassley on the floor of the Senate. Her legacy deserves them all.

Her advocacy story began in 1978 months after her daughter Katie was born. In Julie’s own words:

Being a mother has been one of the most gratifying roles of my life. As many parents will attest, there sometimes comes a moment in parenting where you discover strength you didn’t know you had — all because your child needs you.

For me, that moment began 39 years ago when my daughter Katie contracted viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain at just four months old. It compromised her tiny immune system and did irreversible damage to her body, requiring her to use a ventilator to breathe and leaving her partially paralyzed. Because of Medicaid rules at the time, we could not take Katie home to manage her care, as we wished, but instead, we were forced to keep her hospitalized for three years as we fought the system.

Our family reached out to everyone until eventually word of Katie’s plight reached President Ronald Reagan himself, who created the Katie Beckett Waiver in an act of compassionate conservatism. The creation of a new federal program allowed people with disabilities to use Medicaid dollars to get health care while living in the community. Ultimately, the Katie Beckett Waiver took effect and Katie came home.

The Katie Beckett Waiver profoundly changed Medicaid and the lives of adults and kids with disabilities. Their families are able to welcome them home, and with the support of community services, they live in their own communities, attend school, have jobs, and live with the people who love them. 

When I first met Julie, I was a child health advocate at the Child and Family Policy Center, now Common Good Iowa, and Julie agreed to speak at an event I was managing. I didn’t know her story before meeting her and I bungled her introduction (and remain embarrassed to this day). Julie kindly corrected my mistakes and then with ease and grace talked about why kids needed Medicaid and coverage from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Staff from Senators Harkin and Grassley were panelists and she addressed each of them with the same connectedness, zeal, and request for their boss’s support. As a newer advocate in the field, I knew I was in the space of a true expert. I listened at the precision with which she spoke. I could see how the stories she told moved the audience and the Senate staff. I watched as she pressed them for a response, and left room for them to come to agreement at a later time. Her relationships with them were genuine and strong.

After Katie came home from the hospital, Julie kept going. By that time, she was in contact with parents and family advocates from around the country — moms and dads who also wanted the best care for their kids with disabilities and complex medical conditions. She worked as a Parent Consultant for the national Title Five program focused on maternal and child health, one of the first in that role. Other parents and leaders called her a true visionary, she knew there were copious policy opportunities at every level of government and that most often had the best ideas about them.

Out of the health reform work under President Clinton, Family Voices was created with Julie as one of the very first employees. To this day Family Voices has this mission: Family Voices is a national family-led organization of families and friends of children and youth with special health care needs (CYSHCN) and disabilities. We connect a network of family organizations across the United States that provide support to families of CYSHCN. We promote partnership with families at all levels of health care–individual and policy decision-making levels—in order to improve health care services and policies for children.

With Family Voices going, Julie helped establish the Family-to-Family Health Information Centers (F2Fs) in 2005. These are family-led centers funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA.) Each state has an F2F, as does the District of Columbia, five U.S. territories, and three F2Fs serve tribal communities. Each F2F is staffed by highly-skilled, knowledgeable family members who have first-hand experience and understanding of the challenges faced by the families they serve. These uniquely qualified staff provide critical support to families caring for kids with disabilities particularly families ofchildren with complex needsand those fromdiverse communities. F2Fs also assist providers, state and federal agencies, legislators, and other stakeholders to better understand and serve CYSHCN and their families. 

The Family-to-Family program was flat-funded at $5 million for a decade and in 2016 received a $1 million increase in order to add five U.S. territories and three tribal communities. In honor of Julie and all she did for children and families across the country, Family Voices are asking the Appropriations Committees to increase the funding to $12 million annually. Kids and families deserve this increase as does Julie’s legacy. 

Thank you, Julie for all you taught us about advocacy, for never giving up, and for changing so many lives for the better. Your memory will continue to inspire us. 

Our Kids Need and Deserve Champions

| June 2, 2022 |

First Focus Campaign for Children just released our 2021 Champions for Children Legislative Scorecard, which analyzed the sponsors of over 300 pieces of legislation in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and 16 key votes to identify the 120 top Champions and Defenders of Children. The report also identifies the eight Members of Congress who are failing children by being the worst-performing members in the Legislative Scorecard.

Children are not allowed to vote in our democracy, so they must depend on adults to be their champions and protect their health, education, safety, and well-being. At a time when every single aspect of the lives of children has been threatened by the global COVID-19 pandemic and ensuring economic downturn, kids need the adults in society to take action to help them achieve their greatest hopes and dreams and to ensure the future success of our nation. This is in all of our interest.

Unfortunately, children have historically been treated as an afterthought among policymakers. Research in social stereotyping by Steven Neuberg, et al., finds that certain populations, such as children, who are “generally low in power and status,” are “especially likely to be invisible,” particularly in comparison to high-status groups. 

Political scientists Anne L. Schneider, and Helen M. Ingram have found that policymakers adopt “anticipatory feedback strategies” to prioritize policies and allocate resources to more politically powerful groups, and to punish groups deemed to be unworthy. With respect to “dependents,” they find children evoke sympathy and compassion, and therefore, elicit “promises” and “positive-sounding rhetoric” but “few if any material gains.”

Due to the vulnerability and dependence of children, they also sometimes find themselves subjects of what Charles Piece and Gail Allen have referred to as “childism” or “the automatic presumption of superiority of any adult over any child” that results in “authoritative, unilateral decisions” by some adults toward children.

On New Year’s Eve in 2018, the Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz described how children’s concerns and needs (both domestically and internationally) are often invisible or ignored in policy debates before the White House and Congress. She writes: 

The mistreatment or disregard of American and foreign children at the hands of the United States is not a new problem…. When issues from guns to immigration to health care to foreign affairs are viewed through the lens of how they affect children, it becomes clear the young are an afterthought when it comes to public policy. 

Therefore, the purpose of the Legislative Scorecard is to:

  1. Overcome the structural barriers children face on Capitol Hill and highlight the impact that public policy (including non-action) has on kids and the families who care for them
  2. Alert lawmakers to key policy issues before Congress (both pro and con) and, along with our Bill Tracker, give child advocates additional tools to help raise awareness about how pieces of legislation before Congress impact children
  3. Hold lawmakers accountable for these actions in support or opposition to those priorities
  4. Thank lawmakers that make children a priority in their work and push others to do better by our kids.

2021’s Champions and Defenders of Children in Congress and the White House 

Between 2016 and 2020, the share of federal spending on children dropped from 10.21% to 7.64%. The Trump Administration and Congress failed to prioritize children in their work, and in some cases, actively targeted children for disproportionate cuts. When not actively harming kids, as Itkowitz noted, kids were largely an afterthought. 

As an example, in 2019, Fatherly’s Lizzy Francis highlighted how, despite the presence of a number of bipartisan bills in Congress, there was not a single bill of major significance and focus on children that was even voted on in the U.S. Senate. 

Fortunately, that changed in 2021. After taking office in January of last year, President Biden and members of the 117th Congress recognized that children and their families were suffering as a result of the global pandemic and economic recession. They actively worked to pass the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, which was the most significant short-term investment in children in decades.  

ARP made long-overdue investments in family economics, education, early childhood, child care, family medical leave, child nutrition, and health care.  As a result, the share of federal spending dedicated to children rose from its lowest level of 7.64% in 2020 during the last year of the Trump Administration to a high of 11.15% in 2021

Due to the investments made by that legislation, including an expansion of the Child Tax Credit, child poverty was reduced by 40 percent (see analysis by the Urban Institute and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University) and child hunger was significantly reduced.

These investments in the Child Tax Credit were made because of the years of work done by Champions and Defenders of Children like Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Ritchie Torres (D-NY), Richard Neal (D-MA), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), who made children and families a top priority and tirelessly pushed for the inclusion of the Child Tax Credit in the ARP package.

In the 1991 bipartisan National Commission on Children’s report, the Child Tax Credit was recommended to be established and made fully refundable. Although the Child Tax Credit was established in 1997, it took another 24 years to make it fully refundable and the leaders of that package are appropriately recognized and appreciated for that work as recognized Champions and Defenders of Children. 

So yes, leadership matters and, if we want to make progress for our nation’s children, it should be recognized, encouraged, and affirmed. The Legislative Scorecard expressly tells us, “Who’s for kids, and who’s just kidding.” 

Booker (D-NJ) and Hayes (D-CT) Are the Top Champions for Children in 2021 

As priorities change with each Congress, different members of the House and Senate rise to the top in the Legislative Scorecard. For 2021, the top Senate and House members were Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Jahana Hayes (D-CT), respectively. We wish to give them both special recognition for their outstanding support of children in 2021. 

The Gender Gap Persists: Women are 2.1 Times More Likely to Be Champions/Defenders 

The Legislative Scorecard also tells us a great deal about who and where support is coming from. For example, women in Congress were 2.1 times more likely to be a Champion or Defender of Children than their male peers in 2021. This is down from a 2.7-to-1 margin in 2020, but women continue to fare much better on the Legislative Scorecard than men. 

In the House of Representatives, women represent about one-quarter of the membership, but 13 of the top 15 (86.7%) House Champions for Children were women. In contrast, of the 100 worst performing House members on the Legislative Scorecard, 86 (86%) were men.  

If we ever are to be successful in improving child policy and outcomes for children, men in Congress must do better.  

Partisanship, Too Often, Overrides Support for Child and Family Policy Improvements 

Child advocates fully recognize that partisan politics are a fact of life on Capitol Hill, but children’s policy issues have historically engendered efforts to find common ground and carve out bipartisan support. Landmark legislation, such as Head Start, the Child Tax Credit, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) have all had strong bipartisan support over the years.  

The trend of increasing polarization in Congress has been detrimental to child and family policy. However, as this report demonstrates, there remain a number of bills and policy areas in which bipartisan support continues. We urge Congress to take action on many of the bills listed in our report. Our children and their future should be a place in which we strive to find that common ground. 

Children’s Week is June 12-18. During that week in particular, we urge Members of Congress to put aside their partisan differences and get legislation passed to improve child well-being. There is a litany of options in this report from which to choose. 

The Regional Divide for Children 

First Focus Campaign for Children’s Legislative Scorecard also identifies significant differences in support for our nation’s children by region. 

  • The Northeast continues to lead all regions: 40% of House and Senate members (48 members in total) from the Northeast (Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware) were Champions or Defenders of Children in 2021. 
  • The West continues to place second: The Western region (Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada) led all regions in the 2019 report but now 27% of its House and Senate members (32 in total) were Champions or Defenders of Children. 
  • The Midwest has fallen a bit: In 2020, 24% of House and Senate members (17 in total) in the Midwest (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri) qualified as Champions or Defenders of Children but that number dropped to 14% in 2021. 
  • The Southeast moved out of the basement: In 2020, the Southeast (Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas) had a paltry 5% qualify as Champions or Defenders. That percentage rose to 13% in 2021, as the members recognized from the region increased from 7 to 16.   
  • The Southwest and Plains states are lagging far behind: The Southwest (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas) and Plains states (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota) states keep falling behind, with only 7% of their members (just 7 out of 99) qualifying as were Champions or Defenders.  

Are Certain States More Likely to Elect “Pro-Child” Politicians or Demand that Lawmakers Support Children? 

Finally, the Annie E. Casey Foundation issues an annual report it calls KIDS COUNT, which uses various indicators of child well-being to rank states on how well they perform on kids’ issues. In looking at the top, middle, and bottom third of states, according to that ranking, it is interesting to note that there appears to be a culture of support for kids in certain states that either cause them to elect “pro-child” politicians and/or that create a demand of support for children by their policymakers. 

Based on the correlation between high-performing states and top lawmakers in Congress, one might surmise that the public in certain states create expectations and cultures that prioritize children’s issues and cause policymakers to be more supportive of children’s issues. The lawmakers in the top 17 KIDS COUNT states are 2.8 times more likely to be Champions or Defenders of Children than the House and Senate members in the bottom 17 states. 

For example: 

  • AECF Top States: The highest-ranking states in the KIDS COUNT report for 2021 were Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Vermont, Utah, New Jersey, Nebraska, Connecticut, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maine, North Dakota, Virginia, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming. Of these states, 32% were Champions or Defenders. 
  • AECF Middle States: The states in the middle of the KIDS COUNT rankings were Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Illinois, Montana, Rhode Island, Maryland, Oregon, Hawaii, New York, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Delaware, and California. Of those states, 26% were Champions or Defenders. 
  • AECF Lowest States: The states at the bottom of the KIDS COUNT rankings were North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Arkansas, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Alaska, West Virginia, Nevada, Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi. Of these states, just 11% were Champions or Defenders. 

The Eight Worst Members of Congress 

In First Focus Campaign for Children’s Legislative Scorecard, we have focused on the 120 top Champions and Defenders of Children. However, this begs the question as to who are the worst-performing congressional members. 

That dishonor in 2021 goes to the following eight House and Senate members: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Reps. Matthew Rosendale (R-MT), Chip Roy (R-TX), Ralph Norman (R-SC), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Jody Hice (R-GA), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and Lauren Boebert (R-CO). We call on them to do much, much better in 2022.