“Change is the law of life. And those who only look to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” 

— John F. Kennedy, June 1963

Children in our nation face an uncertain future that depends, in large part, on the decisions that adults make on their behalf. Their future is in peril because, even today, children are not faring well in America. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau finds 21.1 percent of our nation’s children were living in poverty in 2014 — a disadvantage that research has shown to have lifelong consequences for their education, income, health, and well-being. This is a profound tragedy that our nation is largely ignoring and we will reap negative repercussions for generations to come unless we take action in the near future.

Changing demographics and its implications for American politics and public policy will undoubtedly play an important role in either improving the status of our nation’s children or in leading to further declines. In a recent paper by First Focus, we outline some major demographic trends that will have profound implications on our nation for decades to come.

The first demographic change of significance is that, for the first time in 2011,babies born in America were “majority-minority”. As political commentator Ronald Brownstein puts it, “The demographic revolution transforming the U.S. belongs to the young.”

If we want a country that will continue to be strong and successfully compete with other nation’s across the world, we must make needed investments to improve the lives and outcomes for all of our children and make significant efforts to eliminate racial disparities.


Fortunately, the American people are concerned about the future of children. According to a Battleground Poll by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research this past May, the American people believe, by a 69–25 percent margin, that they do not believe the next generation will be better off economically than the current generation.

However, despite such concerns, the Congress has chosen to disproportionately cut funding to children’s programs rather than protect them. In fact, our nation’s elected federal leaders have chosen to shrink the share of federal spending dedicated to children to less than 8 percent.

Although some might point to the fact that overall federal spending is down 4.1 percent from 2011 to 2015 on an inflation-adjusted basis, cuts to children’s programs have been more than twice as deep (9.4 percent).

Those trends are highlighted by budget data that shows federal support for education (down 16.6 percent since 2010) and funding dedicated to combat child abuse and neglect (down 10.1 percent since 2010) is down significantly.

However, congressional budget cuts that disproportionately harm kids’ programs are counter to the wishes of the American people. In a poll by American Viewpoint, although American voters overwhelmingly expressed concern about addressing federal budget deficits, they also said that Congress should do so without harming support for children. For example, when asked if Congress should cut children’s programs in order to reduce the federal budget deficit, American voters strongly opposed such reductions (see chart below).


Children Born Are “Majority-Minority”

Demographic changes and trends can either exacerbate the problems facing children or result in recognition by our nation’s political leaders that change is needed. As stated above, the first demographic change that will have profound implications on our nation for decades to come is highlighted by the fact that babies born in America have been “majority-minority” beginning in 2011.

Recognizing this, will the nation and our leaders choose to embrace the diversity of the next generation and make the investments and changes necessary to ensure their life-long success in a global economy? According to William Frey, demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution:

So all kinds of policies that deal with edu­ca­tion, with young­er people in the work­force, with fam­il­ies, with the chil­dren of young fam­il­ies, all of those sup­port sys­tems are go­ing to have to change, be­cause most of them were de­veloped at a time when the young­er pop­u­la­tion was very dif­fer­ent. It was mostly white, and there was the idea that [a fam­ily] was an ‘Oz­zie and Har­riet’ fam­ily even if there wasn’t one.

The Racial Generation Gap

A related and second demographic trend, which Frey has called the “cultural generation gap” or “racial generation gap,” highlights a potential problem for the next generation. In his book, Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographic Are Remaking America, Frey points to the potential divide between the increasingly diverse youth population and a growing and predominately white older generation as a critical trend that our nation must face and address. For example, there is concern as to whether senior citizens, who vote at higher percentages than other adults, will see fit to support much needed investments in our nation’s children.

On the one hand, there is a body of research and polling data that indicates older voters are strong advocates for programs of importance to them, including Social Security and Medicare, but express far weaker levels of support for specific children’s issues.

For example, a study by James Poterba published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 1996 found that:

. . .an increase in the fraction of a jurisdiction’s population over the age of 65 tends to reduce per-child school spending, and that the effect is especially pronounced when the elderly residents are from a different ethnic group than the school-age population.

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell cites the Poterba study as evidence that the country may “end up systematically underinvesting in an entire generation of Americans.”

In a report released by First Focus in January, we reviewed Frey’s analysis and found that, in the case of Arizona, which has the highest racial generation gap in the country (i.e., the difference between the percentage of non-Hispanic white senior citizens and the percentage of minority children), the State underinvests in its children across the board. The report highlights a number of policy and funding issues of importance to children in Arizona that have been cut.


As one example, the State spends the least amount of money per student in the country, according to the National Education Association’s Ranking and Estimates report. And since 2008, Arizona has, on an inflation-adjusted basis,cut its per pupil spending on education by 17.5 percent, which is the third worst in the country.

In a dramatic reversal, due to relentless advocacy by the Arizona Children’s Action Alliance and other partners, the Arizona legislature overcame opposition from the Senate Majority Leader to join the rest of the nation to have a fully operating Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Not surprising, without CHIP, Arizona has had one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation — another poor situation for Arizona’s kids. Hopefully that will change in the near future.

Unfortunately, Arizona’s children still face numerous other challenges due to the state’s poor performing child welfare system and under-investment in early childhood, child care, and combating child poverty. As a result, an analysis by Annie E. Casey Foundation in their annual KIDS COUNT report, Arizona ranks 46th in the country in overall child well-being.

The question, as Frey asks, is whether the problems Arizona’s children face is a “precursor of things to come elsewhere?”


To analyze this question, First Focus looked at the 17 states (one-third of the states) that have a racial generation gap of greater than 25 percent and found that their per capita spending levels on public education to be well below the national average.

However, to study whether those findings were not due just the fact that grouping of states might be poorer than the national average, First Focus then compared the high racial generation gap states to an “Effort Index” created by the Education Law Center that “takes into account each state’s local and state spending on education in relation to the state’s economic productivity, or gross state product.”

As the Education Law Center explains, “Combining these two elements into a ratio provides a sense of the level of priority state and local budgets assign to education.”

The results of this analysis show a clear inverse relationship between those states with high racial generation gaps and the “Effort Index” created by the Education Law Center.

First Focus analysis showing states with a high racial generation gap fare poorly in terms of “effort”, as defined by the Education Law Center, in supporting of public schools.

Thus, even when you take into account a state’s wealth, it is clear that states with a high generation gap provide far less effort in funding and support to their state’s public schools than the rest of the country. In fact, the high racial generation gap states are 223 percent more likely to receive the lowest grade of F in the Effort Index than states with a more homogeneous population.

This data highlights investment and equity challenges that the next generation faces. Efforts must be make to bridge the “racial generation gap” between generations and to build will among other champions for our nation’s children. We must examine a range of public policy choices to redress the generational compact between generations, along with policy decisions in areas such as housing and education that have the negative consequence of creating a greater divide between generations.

While some of these negative trends are obvious, such as the creation of a growing number of “gated communities” for senior citizens or increased housing segregation, other policy decisions are less apparent. For example, there is increasing evidence that the growth in charter schools, other privatization models, an adherence to high-stakes testing, and state takeovers of local schools increases segregation and reduces the bonds the broader community has with their community public schools. These types of trends must be carefully considered with a more focused lens on how they impact the next generation of children.

This problem for children’s advocates is a long-standing one. As Sally Covington wrote over a decade ago in a book entitled Who Speaks for for America’s Children? The Role of Child Advocates in Public Policy:

Social policy advocates generation agree . . . that a renewed national commitment to vulnerable populations, including children, will only emerge through organized efforts to link citizens together in large networks capable of developing and implementing local, state, and national reform strategies.

Therefore, more than ever before, child advocates also need to reach out to the strongest supporters of children — women, African-Americans, Hispanics, parents, and young men — and ask them to champion the needs of kids as policy and budget decisions are being made at the federal, state, and local levels.

To help address this problem, First Focus Campaign for Children is buildingThe Children’s Network — a collaboration of individuals and organizations dedicated to raising public awareness around issues of importance to children and urging policymakers to make children a greater priority in their decision-making.

In addition, a number of children’s advocacy and professional organizations have come together to create a Children’s Budget Coalition in order to create a unified advocacy voice to reverse the downward trend in federal spending for children. These organizations recognize that child advocates have allowed politicians, for far too long, to say they are helping kids through an increase in funding for a few programs while simultaneously cutting overall investments for children — often in the same appropriations bill.

Change is on the horizon and we stand at a crossroads. As Frey writes:

America’s ongoing diversity explosion should be greeted with optimism because of the opportunities it presents for revitalizing our country, energizing our labor force and providing greater connectivity to the global economy. But there is a hidden danger lurking in the form of an emerging generation gap with strong racial overtones that, left unchecked, could become a significant obstacle to progress.

One path is a choice to retreat into the past, increase racial and age segregation, build walls, and reject our growing diversity. A stronger and better vision for both our children and the nation would be to embrace our growing racial and ethnic diversity, find common ground and common space, increase opportunities that enable everyone (no matter their race, gender, disability, or immigration status) to fulfill their greatest potential, and invest in our nation’s children.

We know that investments in children and education today creates jobs for the future by ensuring that our children will be prepared to compete in a global economy, develop the innovations and technologies that will power America’s economy in the future, and have the skills for the jobs of tomorrow. Unfortunately, Congress and a number of states have taken the opposite approach.

If we care about our future, we need to demand more than just soundbites from our political leaders. In fact, they must understand that creating policy and budget priorities that invest in our nation’s children is what actually makes America great.