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30 years after FMLA, children & families need more

| February 3, 2023 |

Pres. Clinton signs the Family Leave Bill in the Rose Garden of the White House on Feb. 5, 1993. (Greg Gibson/AP Images)

Thirty years ago, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which enabled some workers, for the first time, to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for their children, themselves, or a family member. FMLA was the best federal leave policy possible at the time, and it has helped millions of workers and their families. But thirty years of evidence confirms that U.S. children and families need much more. Congress now must pursue federal policy that reflects this knowledge and the needs of America’s families and children. 

The lack of earned family leave for millions of U.S. workers forces parents to make an impossible choice: Continue earning necessary income, or forfeit that income and care for their newborn, sick child, family member, or themselves. Paid family leave promotes healthy child development, family economic security, and labor force retention, by allowing parents and caregivers to maintain steady employment and income without sacrificing their family obligations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that only about 1-in-4 private sector employees has access to paid family leave. Hispanic and Black workers are much less likely to have access to paid leave compared to their white counterparts. The U.S. is the only wealthy country in the world that does not offer paid parental leave at the national level. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have passed paid family and medical leave laws, while New Hampshire and Vermont guarantee access to leave for state employees, but only provide a voluntary option to purchase coverage for the private sector.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19, Congress passed a temporary paid family and medical leave program through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and required some employers to provide paid leave for employees to care for themselves or their children. This included the need to care for children whose schools or childcare centers were closed due to COVID-19. Lawmakers signaled with this program that they understand the pressing need for parents and caregivers to have access to paid leave.

We need a family and medical leave policy that meets this moment, and not the moment of 30 years ago. Congress must pass the FAMILY Act to create a paid federal leave program that covers employees sooner, for more purposes, and includes those who are self-employed, contractors, or work for any sized employer. On this important anniversary of the FMLA, it is time for Congress to establish a permanent paid family and medical leave program to serve children and their families in the ways they need.


Biden border visit must ask: Is this good for the children?

| January 13, 2023 |

The New Year resets the clock for the Biden Administration to use the next two years to restore and expand our country’s asylum system and welcome children and families seeking safety here with humanity and dignity. Instead, it’s a new year, but the same old immigration policies.

President Biden announced new “border enforcement actions” last week and went to the border this weekend to put a fine point on them. While some of the recommended policies offer positive change, the good policy announcements wither under the weight of deterrence-based measures that would continue denying thousands of asylum-seeking children, families, and individuals fairness, due process, and ultimately the security and well-being that comes from access to safe haven in the United States.

The Administration has announced that it will require families and individuals from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to apply for a limited humanitarian parole program. Under this program, applicants require a sponsor in the United States, a background check, an unexpired passport, COVID vaccination, and the financial resources to fly here — all for temporary permission to enter the country. Meanwhile, those in imminent danger of persecution and violence who don’t meet those criteria would be unable to flee or would be stopped at the border. While positive on their face as new pathways into the country that are safer than traveling over land to the United States, these limited programs effectively expand the reach of Title 42, the public health law that two consecutive administrations have misused to control immigration. President Biden has also announced he will expand expedited removal, reinstate a policy similar to the Trump Administration’s asylum transit ban, and could begin turning away anyone who does not have an appointment to seek asylum.

Many of the children and families coming to the United States have experienced persecution, torture, trafficking, and abuse in their home countries. For them, coming to the U.S. border is not a frivolous perk. It’s a lifeline. U.S. law mandates that these children and families, no matter how or where they approach the border, have a legal right to seek haven in this country.

It’s great to create more pathways into the U.S., but not at the expense of our nation’s long-standing tradition of welcoming people fleeing danger. Asylum is a legal, orderly pathway. What leads to chaos is U.S. policy focused on denying people that legal, orderly pathway. If our country had a functioning asylum system that centered the needs of children and marginalized people, all people seeking haven would be able to approach our border, be humanely welcomed and processed, get support for basic needs and basic information about the immigration system from nonprofit organizations, and arrive at their final destination with services and legal support to make their immigration claim. But the United States does not have a functioning asylum system — and children and families fleeing for their lives pay the price.

For nearly three years, expulsions under Title 42 have turned people seeking safety, including children with families, away from our border, forcing them to wait, cross at dangerous points, or send children ahead alone to find safety. Before the pandemic and Title 42 expulsions, administration after administration ensured deplorable conditions at the border, detention, and denials of due process to deter asylum-seeking children, families, and individuals. None of it has worked. As long as there is violence, torture, exploitation, and persecution in people’s home communities, they will continue to seek safety at our border. It is predictable. It is also manageable if our policymakers have the courage to measure success not by the number of children and families we reject, but by the number of children and families we protect.

As the President completes his post-border visit trip to Mexico, we hope that what he saw and heard informs reconsideration of his immigration policies from the perspective of children, families, and individuals who fled violence, survived perilous journeys, and simply want a fair chance to make their case for protection in the United States. True understanding of their pain and resilience demands a response based on preserving their safety and dignity. It demands a welcome reception at the border, where basic needs are met. It demands wholistic, community-based care for children and families and time to begin to heal before being forced to recount the experiences that led to their journey. It demands guaranteed access to legal representation and non-adversarial interviews led by compassionate and trauma-informed experts so that asylum-seekers have a full and fair opportunity to seek safety. It demands that we put children and their interests at the center of all our policies, believing that when we protect children, we protect everyone. 


Reunite Filipe — and Ensure Family Separation Never Happens Again

| December 14, 2022 |

Photo: Reynaldo Leal for The Texas Tribune

The Trump Administration’s family separation policy is a stain on our nation’s history. As we have stated over and over again, it is a policy that directly harms children and amounts to child abuse. When President Biden took office, he indicated that ending this horrific practice would be a top priority of his administration.

In an executive order issued less than a month after taking office, the President stated that the policy of his Administration is to “respect and value the integrity of families seeking to enter the United States.” He established a Family Reunification Task Force whose mandate is to identify and facilitate the reunification of families separated during the Trump Administration and develop recommendations to prevent family separation from happening again. In response to a public call for recommendations on how the government could  prevent future family separation, First Focus and our supporters urged the Administration to: 

  • Pursue accountability for separated families; 
  • Issue guidance based on rights to family unity and due process; 
    Eliminate all other deterrence-based policies that result in family separation; and 
  • Put in place standards, processes, and entities to ensure all government policies are based on a “best interests of the child” standard. 

And yet, family separation continues under the Biden Administration.  

Filipe, an 11-year-old boy from Columbia, just celebrated his birthday in government custody after being separated from his parents for over six months. Filipe and his parents, Victoria and Anton, fled Columbia after his mother was persecuted for exercising her legal rights. When they requested asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, border agents took Filipe from his parents without allowing him to say goodbye and charged his parents with a misdemeanor offense for failing to report to a formal border crossing point. Today, the entire family remains in detention, separated from each other.  

No child should be calculating the days, minutes, or seconds they’ve been away from their parents. And no family should be forcefully separated. First Focus is proud to join a diverse coalition of advocates calling for Filipe and his parents to be released and reunited and that the Biden Administration truly commit to keeping families together.  

Our partners at the National Immigrant Justice Center are leading this call for Filipe and his family to be released from detention and reunited. Please join us in standing with Filipe and his family by signing and sharing this petition for their reunification and release. 


Let’s ensure no child in the U.S. goes hungry and that every child has a safe and stable place to live

| November 15, 2022 |

This week marks Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, a time for action toward the goal of ensuring that no child in the U.S. goes hungry and every child has a safe and stable place to live.

Skyrocketing rent in many areas, combined with the high cost of food, gasoline, and other goods, has left many households with children struggling to make ends meet and at risk of eviction and homelessness. While increases in rent have slowed a little since the summer, rents are still up 7 percent from last year, and they are up much higher in certain metro areas. The cost of food has also increased by 11.2 percent since last year, making it difficult for many families to put food on the table. 

Compounding the problem is that most eviction bans are no longer in place, emergency rental assistance has dried up in many communities, and improvements to the Child Tax Credit expired at the end of 2021. For example, research has shown that the expiration of the Child Tax Credit increased food insecurity in households with children by 25 percent.

The past few years have shown us that hunger and homelessness is not an intractable problem. We were able to reduce food insecurity for families with children, prevent millions of evictions, and cut child poverty nearly in half through measures that put money directly into households to use for food, rent, child care, and more, and put legal protections in place that stopped many families from being kicked out of their homes.

There is much that policymakers can do in the fight to end hunger and homelessness to stop the backtracking of progress that is now occurring from the expiration of these programs.

First, policymakers must prioritize investments in and improvements to programs that help families afford the rising costs of food. Consistent access to enough healthy food is critically important for the development, learning, health, and well-being of children. Food insecurity inflicts long-term health and development damage on children and often compounds and exacerbates additional problems associated with child poverty. Federal food assistance and child nutrition programs provide critical support, filling in the gaps and fighting hunger and poor nutrition when low-income families struggle to put food on the table.

The pandemic has shown that government investment in federal food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the National School Lunch Program, positively impact the lives of low-income families, especially those with children. However, as aid continues to expire, successful programs like boosts to SNAP benefits and free school meals for all are also ending, causing many families to once again struggle to make ends meet.

Second, Congress must act immediately to renew improvements to the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit made in the American Rescue Plan. The Child Tax Credit reduced poverty, food insecurity, and material hardship in 2021 for families with children through improvements to the credit that significantly increased the amount of the credit, delivered it monthly for half of the year, and allowed families with little or no income to be eligible for the full credit for the first time. The Child Tax Credit also helped to narrow the poverty gap for Black and Hispanic children in 2021 compared with white children.

Third, federal, state, and local policymakers must act to do more to prevent evictions. Families with children are evicted at much higher rates than those without children, and evictions are particularly harmful to children, causing upheaval that negatively affects their health, education, and overall development. Children who experience eviction often move frequently and face homelessness or unstable living environments that inhibit their education, physical health, mental health, and interpersonal relationships.

Finally, we must do more to reach children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness or living in precarious housing situations, who often are ineligible or not prioritized for rental or homelessness assistance. Over the past few years, eviction moratoriums often did not protect families staying in hotel or motel rooms, or temporarily with others, and were also not prioritized for COVID emergency rental assistance or homelessness assistance.

Without being on a lease or being considered legal tenants, homeless families staying temporarily with others or in motels continue to face great difficulty qualifying or being prioritized for rental assistance. And while families and children in these situations are considered homeless by other federal agencies, they do not meet the definition of homelessness used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), making them ineligible for federal homeless assistance services. These children fall through the cracks of both the rental and homeless assistance systems.

As rent and food prices increase, eviction bans and emergency assistance end, and families continue to bear the ongoing physical, emotional, economic, and interpersonal trauma caused by COVID, we fear that homelessness, housing instability, and food insecurity will only continue to rise unless Congress increases investments and acts decisively by:

  1. Renewing 2021 improvements to the Child Tax Credit;
  2. Passing a robust and comprehensive Child Nutrition Reauthorization to improve and modernize child nutrition programs for the first time in nearly 12 years;
  3. Improving access to free and reduced-price school meals by expanding the Community Eligibility Provision;
  4. Modernizing and investing in the WIC Program to increase participation and improve health outcomes; 
  5. Establishing a permanent Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Program that helps feed children during the summer months and school closures, a time when child hunger typically spikes;
  6. Passing the bipartisan Eviction Crisis Act (S. 2182), which would establish a permanent emergency rental assistance program, support landlord-tenant community courts, and improve data through the creation of a national database on evictions; 
  7. Establishing a national renters credit that fills current gaps in housing assistance and delivers resources directly to the households who need it most;
  8. Creating a new grant program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to allocate funds for wraparound support to children, youth, and families experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. 
  9. Allocating another round of $800 million for assistance for homeless students in Fiscal Year (FY) 2023, which helps school districts identify, enroll, and support homeless students, as well as significantly increasing funding for Runaway and Homeless Youth Act programs.

Fact Sheet: Hispanic Voters Strongly Support Investments in Our Children & Grandchildren

| November 9, 2022 |

Based on a nationwide poll conducted by Lake Research Partners of 1,000 likely voters with oversamples of parents, Black, and Hispanic voters in May 2022, voters expressed strong support for making increased investments in children and prioritizing the education and health of children and in alleviating child hunger, child poverty, child homelessness, and child abuse and neglect.

By a wide margin, Hispanic voters believe the U.S. is spending too little on children (58% too little to 11% too much).

When it comes to more specific policies, the percentage of those who believe we are spending too little often rises. For example, the margin rises to 10-to-1 when it comes to reducing child poverty (70-7%).

On other issues, such as accessing mental health services (66-8%), reducing child abuse and neglect (61-7%), reducing child hunger (61-10%), and reducing child homelessness (64-10%), Hispanic voters overwhelmingly believe we are spending too little rather than too much on children.

Hispanic voters also believe that we are spending too little rather than too much on public education (61 too little to 16% too much), assistance for child care expenses (60-12%), and early childhood education (50-10%), and providing affordable child health coverage (50-10%).

Furthermore, although the poll was conducted before the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Hispanic voters believed we were making too little investments for children on the issue of preventing gun violence by a 49-16% margin.


Fact Sheet: Black Voters Strongly Support Investments in Our Children and Grandchildren

| November 9, 2022 |

By a wide margin, Black voters believe the U.S. is spending too little on children (68% too little to 6% too much).

When it comes to more specific policies, the percentage of those who believe we are spending too little often rises. For example, the margin rises to 24-to-1 when it comes to early childhood education (73-3%). Black voters also believe we are spending too little rather than too much on public education (69-8%), and assistance for child care expenses (72-7%).

On other issues, such as reducing child poverty (76% too little to 8% too much), reducing child abuse and neglect (77-4%), reducing child hunger (80-0%), reducing child homelessness (73-7%), or even the more general helping families with low incomes meet basic needs (71-2%), Black voters overwhelmingly believe we are spending too little rather than too much on children.

Black voters also believe that we are spending too little rather than too much on ensuring access to mental health services (66-8%), providing affordable child health coverage (64-15%), and even though the poll was conducted before the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Black voters believed we were making too little investments for children on the issue of preventing gun violence


Fact Sheet: Young Adult Voters Strongly Support Investments in Our Children…and so Do Senior Citizens

| November 9, 2022 |

By wide margins, young voters under age 30 believe the U.S. is spending too little on children (65% too little to 7% too much). By a more than 4-to-1 margin, senior citizens also believe government spend too little versus too much (42-10%).

When it comes to more specific policies, the percentage of those who believe we are spending too little often rises. For example, the margin rises to more than 12-to-1 when it comes to reducing child poverty (74% too little to 6% too much).

On other issues, such as reducing child hunger (71-4%), reducing child abuse and neglect (65-4%), and reducing child homelessness (65-9%), young voters overwhelmingly believe we are spending too little rather than too much on children.

Young voters also believe that we are spending too little rather than too much on public education (68% too little to 13% too much), assistance for childcare expenses (72-6%), and early childhood education (68-15%), providing affordable child health coverage (55-4%), and accessing mental health services (65-10%).

Furthermore, although the poll was conducted before the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, young voters believed we were making too little investments for children on the issue of preventing gun violence by a 59-11% margin.

Senior citizens also feel we spend too little on these issues: child poverty (52% too little to 7% too much), child hunger (66-5%), child abuse and neglect (58-5%), child homelessness (58-6%); public education (53-13%), early childhood (51-6%), child care (48-18%), health coverage (42-6%), mental health (61-8%), and gun violence prevention (53-12%).


Fact Sheet: Parents Support a Positive Child and Family Agenda

| November 9, 2022 |

By a more than 5-to-1 margin, parents believe the federal government is spending too little on children (63% too little to 12% too much). That gap rises to 66-9% among mothers.

When it comes to more specific policies, the percentage of those who believe the federal government is spending too little often rises. For example, the margin rises to 13-to-1 when it comes to reducing child hunger (65-5% overall and mothers at a near-unanimous 68-1%).

Parents also believe the federal government is spending too little rather than too much when it comes to reducing child poverty (67-16%), reducing child homelessness (69-13%), and reducing child abuse and neglect (67-10% overall and 76-6% among mothers).

On other issues, such as early childhood education (63-9% overall and 67-8% among mothers), assistance for childcare expenses (61-11% overall and 70-8% among mothers), providing affordable health insurance coverage (52-12%), accessing mental health services (64-14%), and preventing gun violence (52-20%), parents believe the federal government is spending too little rather than too much on children.

With respect to public education, parents believe we are spending too little rather than too much by a 60-19% margin.

In sharp contrast, the “parent rights” movement advocated by groups like Moms for Liberty seeks to exclude engagement with government under the mantra “we don’t co-parent” in all decision-making. This movement calls upon parents to govern and direct all matters involving their children and includes an agenda to privatize public schools, impose speech codes upon teachers, whitewash history and science curriculum, and ban books from public school libraries.

This agenda, particularly the banning of books, are unpopular with the American people. For example, a February 2022 CBS News/YouGov poll showed that voters opposed banning books for “criticizing U.S. history” (17% yes, 83% no), “political ideas you disagree with” (15-85%), “depicting slavery” (13-87%), and “discussing race” (13-87%).

These numbers highlight strong interest in a “Child and Family Agenda” that is inclusive of the role of the government in providing key supports and functions to parents for our children rather than the government enforcing censorship and limits on free speech in response to the so-called “rights” of certain parents.

If, in fact, the government is failing, it is in providing “too little” support to children and families and not because it chooses not to censor teachers and ban books and free speech.


Keeping up with progress: How the U.S. can follow the world’s lead on child poverty

| November 7, 2022 |

The United States has historically had a higher level of child poverty than many other wealthy countries because we have failed to invest in our children. We spend much less than other countries on cash benefits for children, which have a bigger impact on reducing child poverty than any other mechanism. 

This dismal trend in child poverty changed in 2021 when Congress made significant improvements to the Child Tax Credit. Lawmakers substantially increased the amount of the credit, especially for families with the biggest barriers to financial stability, who previously were excluded from accessing a full or even partial credit. Families with children were able to receive the credit monthly for the first half of 2021, helping them to meet monthly bills. These improvements led to the lowest U.S. child poverty rate on record — cutting child poverty nearly in half in 2021, narrowing the racial poverty gap for Black and Hispanic children, and significantly reducing food insecurity and material hardship.

So how does our child poverty rate compare to other countries now? 

New research from Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy finds that after accounting for the impact of an expanded Child Tax Credit, the United States child poverty rate is still high, but it is closer to that of other wealthy European countries. 

Specifically, before the improvements to the Child Tax Credit, the United States ranked 31 out of 34 countries (on a scale from lowest to highest child poverty rates). After accounting for the Child Tax Credit improvements, the U.S. now ranks 24 out of 34.  

These comparisons use the relative measure of poverty applied by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which identifies a household as poor if their income falls below 50% of national median household income. This measurement differs in many ways from our Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), including by setting a higher and more accurate threshold of poverty than the SPM. As you can see from the figure below, using the OECD’s relative measure results in a higher baseline of children in poverty than the SPM before taking the Child Tax Credit improvements into account. (A higher poverty threshold + the United States’ fairly high median household income = identifying more children in poverty). 

It is important to note that researchers measured the impact of CTC improvements using poverty data from 2016-2018, because those years featured more usual economic conditions than 2019-2021, where data collection and economic conditions were skewed by the impact of COVID-19. 

Despite the significant impact of the improvements to the Child Tax Credit, they expired at the end of 2021, and since then we have seen increases in child poverty and food insecurity.   

We should learn from our other countries and urge Congress to: 

  1. renew these improvements without delay;  
  2. establish a national child poverty reduction target with the ultimate goal of ending child poverty in the United States. 

Other countries provide us with useful lessons on the positive impacts of cash benefits and setting child poverty reduction goals (United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland). The United States should follow suit and implement policies to end child poverty and help all children thrive.


Watch: 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline – One Size Does Not Fit All

| October 21, 2022 |

This afternoon, First Focus on Children hosted a webinar on 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline entitled One Size Does Not Fit All: Ensuring 988 and mobile crisis response are designed to serve children.

Below are some of the top takeaways from our conversation about what effective 988 and crisis response systems look like for children:

  • The act of a parent or other adult picking up the phone and calling a public system to ask for help is significant – we must recognize the importance of that act so that we don’t miss opportunities to help children and their families.
  • We must intervene at numerous points before an emergency room becomes a default option for care. 
  • A crisis must be defined by a family and not the person receiving the call.
  • Children are not little adults and we cannot take an adult system and apply it to children
  • We must center the voice of the child or young person in crisis, and face-to-face intervention is necessary in order to do that.
  • It is important to build the confidence of parents in behavioral health systems and ensure they have positive experiences so they are more likely to use the behavioral health resources available to them. 
  • To better respond to the needs of specific populations, including LGBTQ, Black, and brown children and those in the child welfare system, we must invest in culturally sensitive education and training for those involved at all points of the crisis response system. 
  • It is vital to keep children in their own homes, communities, and schools and to avoid residential placements. 

Links and Resources Referenced in the Session:

Resources from our panelists:

This conversation was part of a weeklong series of virtual briefings and advocacy to mark the first anniversary since the Children’s Hospital Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared the kids’ mental health crisis a national emergency and launched the Sound the Alarm for Kids Campaign.  The campaign seeks to raise awareness of the national emergency in child and adolescent mental health accelerated by the pandemic. First Focus on Children is a partner in this campaign, which supports policies that promote social and emotional health for children from infancy through adolescence and enhance their access to culturally and developmentally appropriate mental health care when they need it. As partners, we stand together to call for bold action to meet the challenges of this crisis and build a future where all children can receive the mental health support they need to learn, grow, and thrive.