Giving voice to children in the political process

Child Rights
Education
Federal Budget
Racial Equity
Tax Policy

Maybe it is time to follow the lead of countries like Austria, Argentina, and Brazil and communities like Takoma Park and Hyattsville in Maryland to lower the voting age to 16. Children desperately need their voices heard, as they are one-quarter of the population and all of our future, but now represent less than 8 percent of the federal budget.

In fact, at a briefing on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Urban Institute’s Gene Steuerle presented data that shows the federal budget is on a pathway whereby funding for important things for America’s children, such as education, nutrition, income security, housing, and child abuse and neglect prevention, will drop over the next decade as a share of both the federal budget and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), unless our nation’s political leaders change course and make children a greater priority. However, since kids don’t vote and don’t have Political Action Committees (PACs), their hopes and needs are far too often neglected and ignored in Washington, D.C., and in state capitols across the country.

Even on the fundamental issue of education, which most Americans strongly support, education funding has been cut by 16.6 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis at the federal level since 2010. And, according to a report released last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 31 states provided less state funding per student in the 2014 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2014) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold. In at least 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent.”

Put simply, our political leaders are failing to make much needed investments in children and our nation’s future and the American people are increasingly concerned about it. According to a Battleground Poll in May by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research, over two-thirds of Americans (69-25 percent) do not believe the next generation will be better off economically than the current generation. As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post notes, “The numbers from the Battleground Poll echo other data that has come out over the past few years that suggests a deep pessimism within the electorate about what sort of country they are leaving their children.”

On matters of peace and war, it is our young people who are asked to bear the greatest burden of risking their lives in going off to fight. Unlike the sacrifice that many young people bore, during the last military conflicts, most Americans weren’t even asked to participate in any way, including through their tax support, to fight the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those costs were simply passed on through large deficits and increasing debt, which by the way, will be paid off by the next generation.

On the matter of federal budget priorities and fairness, the Urban Institute estimates that federal interest on the debt – a burden the next generation will be asked to pay off – will exceed all federal spending on our nation’s children by 2018. This combination of inadequate investments in children while simultaneously passing on a growing debt to their generation highlights the disregard that our nation’s political leaders currently demonstrate toward the next generation. At First Focus, we have a slew of policy recommendations that would alleviate these problems but, if teenagers were allowed to vote, political leaders would be more likely to have to face up to and help find solutions to these failings.

On issues of the environment, we are passing on a world that may be an ecological disaster unless action is soon taken. It is no surprise that young people are more concerned and more attentive to issues of the environment and they have every right to have their voice heard in such matters. It is the planet that they will inherit.

On the matter of education, policy should be focused on the needs of children, but decisions are far too often made based on the relative influence of adult interests, including that of testing companies, charter school investors, groups like Teach For America, and teachers’ unions. Beyond the funding shortfalls noted above, debates over testing, teaching quality, and equity, which are all critically important, often take place without a focus on or even the slightest regard for the best interest of our nation’s most vulnerable children.

On matters of tolerance and race, the next generation looks back on historical examples of prejudice, racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism and firmly rejects that past. Children today are more tolerant, welcoming, and willing to embrace America’s rich diversity. In part, it is because they are living it, as their generation is far more diverse than any past generation of Americans. In fact, a majority of children under the age of 6 are non-white and one in four are the children of immigrants. Therefore, whereas the success of Donald Trump reflects, in part, the yearnings of a subsection of old, grumpy voters who appear to wish for a return to a period of prejudice, an alternative vision of mutual respect and tolerance that America’s youth embodies must be heard and represented. They are, after all, our future.

On the issue of taxation and representation in our democracy, teenagers pay billions of dollars each year in sales taxes and a large number of teenagers also work and pay payroll taxes but are, arguably, “unfairly precluded” from the right to vote. The National Youth Rights Association fairly point out, “Youth pay billions in taxes to state, local, and federal governments yet they have absolutely no say over how much is taken. This is what the American Revolution was fought over; this is taxation without representation.”

And more generally, the fact is that almost every issue and action taken by lawmakers impacts children and youth, yet they have no say in the matter. In testimony before a Minnesota House subcommittee in 1991, 14-year-old Rebecca Tilsen said:

If 16-year-olds are old enough to drink the water polluted by the industries that you regulate, if 16-year-olds are old enough to breathe the air ruined by garbage burners that government built, if 16-year-olds are old enough to walk on the streets made unsafe by terrible drugs and crime policies, if 16-year-olds are old enough to live in poverty in the richest country in the world, if 16-year-olds are old enough to get sick in a country with the worst public health-care programs in the world, and if 16-year-olds are old enough to attend school districts that you underfund, then 16-year-olds are old enough to play a part in making them better.

On the other side, the leading argument is that that teenagers are “not mature enough” to vote, but two recent articles in the Washington Post speak volumes to why that notion is both false and condescending. In the first article, entitled “Attacks on Trump just make these voters like him more” by David Weigel, Republican pollster Frank Luntz spent several hours in a focus group with 29 adults who were supporters of Donald Trump and found that facts and understanding were often lacking and summarily dismissed even when presented to them. These voters expressed little understanding or concern about the difference between fact and fiction in their consideration for whom to vote to be president of the United States.

The second article, “What politics look like through 14-year-old eyes,” is an interview by reporter Phillip Bump with Gabe Fleisher, who edits Wake Up To Politics, a daily political newsletter he founded despite being 14 years of age. As Fleisher argued to reporter Phillip Bump:

. . .I disagree with your statement that teenagers don’t understand the world, a belief shared by many adults. I think this belief stems from the fact that teenagers just understand a different world than adults do, and perhaps understand the world to come more than adults can.

After reading and comparing the wisdom of the adult voters in the Weigel article and the interview of the 14-year-old political activist Gabe Fleisher, it is virtually impossible to argue that voters who blatantly ignore and disregard reason and facts in the Trump focus group are in any way more qualified to vote than the 14-year-old, who may by the better voter because of his lack of years and prejudices.

While there may be a growing movement to change the voting age, at least in local elections, this will make time – time that this generation does not have. Therefore, regardless of how you feel about lowering the voting age, children need the voice of adults in the political process to articulate and advocate for their needs and hopes now.

If you are a parent, grandparent, teacher, pediatrician, social worker, or work at a business that profits from their development, children need your help and voice in the political process. This means they need your support in pushing federal policymakers to give children their fair share of public dollars for things like their education and to push for policy changes that will improve their lives and well-being.

This requires that we be more focused and purposeful to that end. In an American Viewpoint poll, voters said that, if they had to make a choice, they would make the “needs of children” a greater priority than both defense spending and the “needs of the elderly”. In the latter case, voters chose the “needs of children” by a 51-24 percent margin. This prioritization of children was even supported by both male (43-25 percent) and female (40-26 percent) voters over the age of 60. And yet, policymakers continue to cut funding for children at both the federal and state levels.

There are two ways you can help reverse this trend and ensure the next generation gets the help they need to be successful and thrive. First, child advocacy groups could use your financial support to build political support for making investments in children. As Elizabeth Reid writes in her paper entitled “Building a Policy Voice for Children through the Nonprofit Sector”:

Children. . .have a unique place in American democracy. Their rights and political agency are not as absolute or direct as those of adults. Thus, children’s voices must be heard through the organizations of parents and professionals who negotiate children’s status in the courts and in the policy process.

At First Focus, for example, you can learn more about us and donate here.

Second, children could use your voice on their behalf. The importance of mobilizing active support for children across the country is highlighted in a book, Who Speaks for America’s Children? The Role of Child Advocates in Public Policy. According to Theda Skocpol and Jillian Dickert:

A revitalized movement for children and families in America will depend on the ability of advocates to find new ways to link their efforts nationally and across state and local lines, and to reach out more effectively to parents and communities.

At First Focus, we are working with others to knit a strong and purposeful grassroots network for children that can advance a multi-issue children’s policy agenda at the federal, state, and local levels. If you are interested in joining this effort, please learn more about and sign up to be a part of The Children’s Network here.

As we move into 2016 and make our New Year’s resolutions, let’s resolve to make children a greater national priority. After all, as President John F. Kennedy said, “Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.”


One easy way to give voice to children in the political process: https://firstfocus.org/blog/giving-voice-to-children-in-the-political-process/ v/ @First_Focus #InvestInKids
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Do you share our vision of making America a better place to be a child and raise a family? Then you should be a part of The Children’s Network, a movement led by individuals, non-profit organizations, and businesses committed to the health, education, and well-being of children in the United States.Become a part of the network and receive exclusive materials, updates, and opportunities to take action on behalf of our children. 

First Focus is a bipartisan organization dedicating to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. You can support our work by making a donation or joining The Children’s Network to receive updates and action alerts.