The promise of this nation is that our young people will be provided an equal opportunity to fulfill their full potential. Unfortunately, over 16 million or more than 1 in 5 of our nation’s children live in poverty, nearly 8 million children lack health insurance coverage, the U.S. has the 2nd worst infant mortality rate among industrialized nations, over 1 million students are homeless, over 750,000 children are abused and neglected annually, and over 1 in 5 students drop out before graduating from high school.

We can and must do better.

What is needed is a new and fresh vision for change from our nation’s leaders — at all levels. And child advocates across this country must redouble their efforts to demand change and progress at the local, state, and national levels.

The last major accomplishment for children in this country was passage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in 1997, which successfully cut the uninsured rate for children to less than 10 percent. But, that was 16 years ago and nearly a generation of children have grown up since then without significant progress. In fact, during the last decade, a number of indicators for children, including KIDS COUNT and the Child Well-Being Index, have taken a downward trajectory that must be reversed. After careful analysis and review of such data, Save the Children and First Focus gave the United States a woeful grade of C- when it comes to children.

What is clear is that responses in policy silos no longer work. As John Gomperts at America’s Promise Alliance has said, education reform is “necessary but insufficient.” His point is that education reform without addressing school funding, child poverty, child safety, school attendance, and child health is ineffective. There is also an important movement within the child welfare community recognizing that the lives of children suffering abuse and neglect requires a comprehensive look at their overall well-being, as things like the economy, housing, mental health, substance abuse, education of parents and children, etc. are critical factors to success. And, the juvenile justice community, while continuing to push for system improvements, also rightfully points out that the juvenile justice system exists only because other systems of support for children have repeatedly failed.

We can and must do better.

It’s time to restore American leadership, and the place to start is by investing in our future, our children. As President Barack Obama said at the prayer vigil in Newtown, Conn., last month, “This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.”

In December 2010, incoming House Speaker John Boehner expressed a deep concern for children and the importance of the “American Dream” on 60 Minutes. He said,

I have been chasing the American Dream my whole career. There are some things that I have a difficult time talking about — family, kids. I can’t even go to a school anymore. I used to go to a lot of schools. I used to see all these little kids running around. Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American Dream like I did is important.

Unfortunately, while the United States leads the world in science, technology, innovation, and sports, we sadly are also a world leader in infant mortality, violence against children, and child poverty. We are one of just three nations (in the company of Somalia and the South Sudan) in the world that has failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Despite the concern and rhetoric, we fail our kids far too often.

It’s time we recommit ourselves to a better America, a nation that sets high standards for its children and demands accountability. It takes a partnership of parents, schools, and communities to grow strong minds and bodies. But you can’t expect returns on investments you don’t make, and it’s time we started investing in our children again.

As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at the Summit on America’s Children in May 2007,

For too long, America’s children have come in last in the competition for government investments. For too long, we have allowed outdated ways of thinking to determine our policies regarding children. And for too long, there has been not enough political will to make children our number one priority in our work here in Congress. I pledge to you today that those days are over. We take seriously our responsibility to America’s future — our children…. Today, I commit to ensuring our children are given the tools they need to succeed.

Clearly, we have the concern and awareness from our political leaders. What has been missing is a bipartisan game plan from them toward success. To reverse the downward trend for America’s children, a first step would be to renew the National Commission on Children, which finalized its call to action, Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families in 1991. That Commission, chaired by Senator Jay Rockefeller, put forth a national blueprint to improve the lives and well-being of America’s children and families. It successfully generated momentum toward the enactment of some critical policy changes, such as the Child Tax Credit and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Building on the basic principle that every child should have the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential, the Commission sought to identify ways to ensure that parents have the necessary means and supports to raise healthy children.

Now, 22 years after the Commission’s final report, a fresh look at how our children are faring reveals a compelling need for an updated national action plan to ensure the wellbeing of our youth. As such, groups like Save the Children, the Children’s Health Fund, Every Child Matters, Share Our Strength, First Focus, and The Center for the Next Generation, are pushing for a new National Commission on Children with a focus on creating a bipartisan vision for America as a global frontrunner in child well-being. Its purpose would be to assess the performance of the United States in ensuring the well-being of children and make recommendations to improve opportunities and outcomes for the next generation.

Recognizing current budget constraints and that the budget deficit is also a children’s issue, the President and Congress should also consider some low-cost, immediate changes to make the systems, structures, and overall functions of government work better for children in the long-term. These include, but are not limited to, the following ideas:

  • Creation of a Children’s Budget whereby the federal government commits to measuring and fully understanding whether children are gaining or losing ground in the federal budget, which is symbolic of our national priorities and commitment to our children.
  • Establishment of Youth Councils, as have been created in a number of states across the country and in at least 93 countries spanning the alphabet from Anguilla to Zimbabwe, to give children and youth a voice in public policies that impact their lives.

Less than 8 percent of the federal budget is currently dedicated to children and that amount is a fraction of that provided to our nation’s senior citizens. With support so low and outcomes as poor as they are, children should not be an afterthought in federal budget and policy decision-making any longer. Establishing a National Commission on Children and a Children’s Budget would be critical first steps to ensuring that the well-being of children in this country can no longer be simply ignored.

This blog post was first published in Huffington Post.