This week our nation celebrates an important American milestone and I’m not talking about our Declaration of Independence from King George III. Forty-five years ago this week, at the height of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Congress passed landmark legislation creating the Medicaid program to ensure health care for our nation’s most poor and vulnerable citizens. Before that time, millions of families had no place to turn when their child was ill, injured, or disabled. The Social Security Amendments of 1965 (which also established the Medicare program) created an essential health care safety net for those most in need. When the legislation went into effect on July 1, 1966, poor families were given peace of mind that their children would no longer go without health care because they couldn’t afford it.

Today, Medicaid continues to serve as the cornerstone of health coverage for our children. It is the single largest insurer of children, providing coverage to 30 million kids in 2010. More than one-third of all American children get their health care through Medicaid and half of all enrollees are children. More broadly, it is the source of coverage for 1 in 5 Americans. Without Medicaid, the very poorest people in our country would be uninsured and millions of children would not have a regular source for basic health care services.

Despite these significant numbers, it is important to remember that Medicaid serves primarily children in families with extremely limited means. The fact that so many American children rely on Medicaid reflects the dismal state of the national economy and also the state of poverty in America. Just last fall, the U.S. Census reported that in 2009 the number of children living in poverty had grown to 15.5 million kids. It is stunning to think that 20 percent of children in America live in poverty. Sadly, these statistics help to explain why so many kids in America rely on Medicaid for their health care.

The good news is that Medicaid has been enormously successful in providing cost-effective care to millions of children. From well-baby and well-child visits, to vaccines, eyeglasses, dental and asthma care, Medicaid plays a significant role in keeping kids healthy, in school, and on track to becoming productive adults.

However, despite Medicaid’s success, lawmakers continue to propose cuts that could damage the program beyond repair leaving scores of children uninsured. As advocates, we hope our leaders are working hard to find solutions to address the budget deficit and to save our frail economy but gutting Medicaid for kids will only limit their eligibility for coverage and reduce benefits while producing insubstantial savings. This cannot be the answer. It is during times of economic uncertainty and rising income inequality that Medicaid is most essential. Taking health care away from poor kids makes no sense and serves only to jeopardize our nation’s future prosperity. How can we fix the economy for the long term if we can’t be sure that we’ll have a healthy generation of kids who are able to work?

As lawmakers iron out serious budget issues, children’s health coverage must continue to be a national priority. Forty-five years ago our leaders made a commitment to care for those living in poverty. Our leaders today must renew this commitment by protecting Medicaid so that every family in America has the peace of mind that when hard times fall their children will still be able to get the care they need to grow up to enjoy long and healthy lives. We owe it to our children and to our nation’s future success to keep Medicaid strong.