Note: This post was written by Share Our Strength's Billy Shore and Save the Children Action Network's Mark Shriver. It originally appeared in The Hill.
In this most unpredictable election year, the only thing we can know for sure is that, regardless of who wins, our nation will be in serious need of healing and unity. The campaign has exposed deep divisions. Many will still exist once the campaign is over. We will need to find at least some small patches of common ground upon which to build and go forward. That's easier said than done given genuine ideological differences and a political and media culture committed to fanning the flames.
One place to look is toward the needs of our children, who represent our future.
Both candidates have recognized this and mentioned their plans to address the ever-growing cost of child care in the first presidential debate. A high priority for the next president, and a politically pragmatic one for bringing the country together, should be a policy agenda that finally puts children first and makes possible a massive investment in the next generation.
Such a commitment to give kids a strong start in life should include:
- An assault on child poverty, which has fallen to 21 percent but still leaves America with one of the highest rates in the industrialized world;
- Ending childhood hunger, which damages and delays children developmentally, by ensuring full participation in federal nutrition programs like school breakfast and summer meals that help to ensure children get the healthy food they need;
- Scaling up high-quality child care, Head Start and Early Head Start, and universal pre-K so that they are accessible and affordable for all;
- Expanding home visiting programs that give young parents the knowledge and tools they need to raise healthy kids who are ready to learn;
- And community service opportunities for young Americans in exchange for educational scholarships.
If this agenda seems big and bold, that's because it is. The gap between what we know and what we do about the needs of children - when it comes to nutrition, and high-quality early education, mentoring, and health care just to name a few - is wider than ever.
Notwithstanding the lip service political leaders give to children, we actually don't invest in them. According to the advocacy organization First Focus, the share of federal spending dedicated to children is just 8 percent of the federal budget, despite the fact that children are 25 percent of the population. Total spending on children has decreased 5 percent over the last two years.
The reason is simple and sad: children are politically voiceless. They don't vote and don't make campaign donations. With only a few exceptions, they have no lobbyists. The agenda in Washington and in state capitols gets set by others. It's time to set a new course.
In addition to the merits of investing in children, there are compelling reasons why coming together on behalf of children should have broad political appeal:
- Our children are the most vulnerable and least responsible for the situation they are in. Whatever their parents have done right or wrong, it is in our national self-interest to ensure children survive and thrive.
- Early childhood investments yield the greatest return, and are far more economical than years of expense for remedial education, health care and juvenile justice. A study by Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman shows that for every dollar invested in early education, there is a return of at least $7. Prevention is far less expensive than treatment.
- All of our most challenging problems - climate change, terrorism, immigration - require long-term solutions and will depend on the next generation to finish whatever we start. We protect our own investments by ensuring their preparedness.
- We don't need to create new programs - we already have plenty that work. From Children's Health Insurance to pre-K to school breakfast, we know the solutions but have lacked the political will to ensure they are fully utilized.
- It is morally right. Period.
Our economic competitiveness and national security demand that we address the moral injustice of child poverty in America. We need bold leadership from our next president and there is no better place to spend scarce tax resources than in our children. To unite our country, we must invest in kids.
Mark Shriver is President of Save the Children Action Network, which aims to mobilize all Americans in a commitment that cannot wait - investing in early childhood now. Billy Shore is the founder and chief executive officer of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that is working to end childhood hunger in America.