Getting Back to Basics for Our Nation's Children

By a nearly 3-to-1 margin (58-20%), American voters believe that the lives of children have become worse rather than better over the last ten years, as key indicators of child well-being continue to decline.
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Two new important but disturbing reports, Children's Budget 2011 by First Focus and Kids' Share 2011 by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, were released today. Although the reports show a temporary increase in federal support for children in federal funding in 2009 and 2010, the long-term trend is a troubling one, as the share of federal funding for children dropped by nearly 10 percent in 2011 and will continue on a sharp downward trajectory so that federal payments for interest on the debt alone will exceed funding for all children's programs by 2014.

As author Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute notes:

"A society reveals its preferences in the way it budgets. Right now, the federal government would spend over $1 trillion more in 2020 than in 2010, and kids in the aggregate would get none of it. In fact, they would get less than they do today."

There is no question that tough times call for tough measures, but reducing spending on child health, education and early childhood, child nutrition, and foster care supports is not the way to solve our budget and deficit problems, particularly since the recent recession has had a devastating impact on families with children. As reported by CBS anchor Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes:

" is estimated that the poverty rate for kids in this country will soon hit 25 percent...[T]hese children will be the largest generation to be raised in hard times since the Great Depression."

The American people recognize the crisis facing America's children. By a nearly 3-to-1 margin (58-20%), American voters believe that the lives of children have become worse rather than better over the last ten years, as key indicators of child well-being continue to decline. Americans are deeply concerned that the generation growing up today will not have the same opportunities they had to lead a happy, healthy, and prosperous life. And when Americans no longer believe in the American Dream, it is time to reclaim our heritage and national focus and to return to some fundamental basics.

Again, if only our political leaders would listen to the American people, who want our nation's deficit to be addressed but oppose balancing the budget on the backs of children. While a number of politicians have gone on the offensive to protect tax breaks for corporate jets, oil companies, and ethanol subsidies, Americans believe children should be a priority in the federal budget process. When provided a list of potential cuts to the budget, voters firmly and overwhelmingly reject the idea of making major federal budget cuts to K-12 education, child nutrition, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicaid, Head Start, and student loans, as was included in House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget proposal. Even if our political leaders don't seem to get it, the American people understand that cutting programs for low income and other vulnerable children will not only hurt the next generation, such cuts will increase our long term costs, as well as damage our economic and global competitiveness.

By more than a 2-to-1 margin, voters support increased revenue options, such as eliminating corporate tax loopholes, federal subsidies to corporations, subsides for oil companies, and raising taxes on those earning over $1 million a year. Unfortunately, despite the public's overwhelming support to protect the best interests of children, the resources for programs that serve them are still being threatened by our nation's often dysfunctional budget process. Just this year, children's programs received a series of cuts in the budget process the share of the federal budget dedicated to children dropped from 9.2% to 8.4%.

Fortunately, there is precedent in our country for when children were a national priority. In 1991, Congress and the country responded to the report issued by the National Commission on Children and took a series of actions that improved the lives of children, including a significant expansion of the Child Tax Credit in 1993, which in combination with the economic recovery in the mid-1990s reduced child poverty, and the passage of CHIP in 1997, which has cut the uninsured rate for children by more than half for children living in households below 200% of the poverty level. It should be noted that CHIP was established in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, which made significant cuts to balance the federal budget and created subsequent budget surpluses. In short, Congress made children a priority, even in tough times, and the result was significant progress in outcomes for children.

More recently, when President Barack Obama took office, the second bill he signed into law was the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act. This was followed by significant new investments in education, early childhood, and child nutrition. In fact, the President's fiscal year 2010 budget proposal was unprecedented in modern times for making children a national priority, as he proposed a significant increase in support for children's programs. These increases would have completely restored the loss in the federal share of spending that children had experienced since 2005, but Congress failed to enact them.

Instead of making children a priority, some have argued that everything needs to be on the table, including critical children's programs. But, haven't children paid enough for the economic mistakes of grown-ups? And, if they are going to be responsible for paying off the debt we leave them, shouldn't they be well prepared and able to lead prosperous, productive, and healthy lives and be able to pay for the obligations and commitments we have made to previous generations in terms of Social Security and Medicare?

It's in our nation's best interest to raise the most healthy, most educated, best-prepared children in the world for the challenges that lie ahead. And to do that, we must get back to some basic fundamentals in our country. First and foremost, that means protecting the health and safety of our nation's children, protecting them from harsh economic times, and helping them develop their full God-given potential. America should be at the top of the list of industrialized nations in the health and safety of its children, not at the bottom. And no child in this country should ever go hungry. It's time we reduce child poverty, make the tax system fair for working and middle class families, and help working people who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own avoid having their homes foreclosed and their children left homeless. Getting back to basics also means making sure that our nation is leading the world again in the percentage of kids who go on to college, not the percent who drop out of high school.

Our children are our future and we simply cannot afford to fail them. It truly doesn't get any more basic than that.

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