In focus groups in Des Moines, Iowa, and Las Vegas, Nevada, a few years ago, voters were asked what their top issues were, but only one in each group of 20 mentioned an issue related to children. The economy, terrorism, the Middle East, and other issues were mentioned. Kids were an afterthought.
The focus group moderator and conservative communications strategist Frank Luntz proceeded to ask people — many parents, grandparents, and employees in professions that work with children — why they didn’t care about kids, and the participants became quite angry. “Why, of course, I care about kids!” several of them demanded. A few rose out of their chairs to further emphasize their passion for children.
But, when asked why they failed to mention kids, the focus group participants were at a loss. They simply didn’t think of children as a political issue. They didn’t make the link between kids and politics initially, but they should.
The fact is that children compete against every other issue in federal, state, and local budgets for attention. They frequently lose.
The problem for kids in that: (1) public is unaware as to the importance of policy to kids; (2) the media doesn’t help because they consider children’s issues to be “soft news;” and, (3) politicians understand that kids don’t vote or give campaign contributions so often ignore and fail to do right by them. Thus, the triangle (public, media, and politicians) is complete and devastating for our kids.
Consequently, investments in children account for just 7.83 percent of the federal budget.
At the state and local levels of government, spending on education is still below 2008 levels, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Children need adults to be their advocates. A network of child advocates, parents, pediatricians, and like-minded politicians are working to shatter this “iron triangle” that fails kids. When made aware, adults become quite passionate about the next generation. And, in Election 2016, no candidate for political office who has tried so hard to make children a leading issue in a campaign as Hillary Clinton did.
In Clinton’s case, she made children a centerpiece of her political advertisements and put forth a number of comprehensive policy proposals on children’s issues. For that, child advocates should be forever grateful. There was no opposition to those ideas. In fact, Donald Trump, with the help of his daughter Ivanka Trump, even countered with a child care proposal of their own.
Unfortunately, the triangle did not break because there was little to no media attention to children’s issues during the campaign.
In debate after debate, the media loved to repeatedly ask Clinton about emails and Donald Trump about his taxes. The endless media coverage about emails even including numerous stories about Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta’s emails about his creamy risotto recipe. There are pages and pages of links to about that recipe (seriously, Google it), and it sounds delicious, but tragically, a much smaller fraction of stories were published about the plight of our nation’s 74 million children, who happen to represent one-quarter of the population and our entire future.
Americans were also subjected to a major onslaught of uninterrupted stories about the latest polling data, which we now know were all completely wrong. Even FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver was wrong — twice.
Vox and The Atlantic tried to report on kids’ issues, and for that, we are deeply grateful. But sadly, they were the exceptions.
Harvard professor Thomas Patterson, who studied the media’s election coverage, said, “Not a single one of Clinton’s policy proposals accounted for even 1% of her convention-period coverage; collectively, her policy stands accounted for a mere 4% of it.”
According to the Tyndall Report, which monitors the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC, “. . .issues coverage this year has been virtually non-existent. Of the 32 minutes total, terrorism (17 minutes) and foreign policy (7 minutes) toward the Middle East (Israel-ISIS-Syria-Iraq) have attracted some attention. Gay rights, immigration and policing have been mentioned in passing.”
Consequently, the public received little or no information from the “mainstream media” about the critical issues facing our children, such as child poverty, early childhood, child nutrition, bullying, child abuse and neglect, college affordability, juvenile justice, homelessness, child safety, and the fundamental rights of children in this society.
Education, which is often cited as one of the most important issues to voters, received more attention, although, as Jeff Bryant explains, that attention was primarily related to the issue of “who controls the schools” at a more local level. This fight, while critically important to children, is mostly a defensive one and often only gains attention due to the promotion by corporate interests of efforts to privatize our public schools.
Instead of the privatization of our public schools, evidence-based research tells us what really matters to children are things like equitable and well-funded public schools, small class sizes, quality early childhood programs, home visiting programs, child nutrition, health care, and developmental screenings. Kids that have these types of services and are not living in poverty or homeless are far more likely to thrive, but those issues were largely ignored.
The problem is that many kids do not have the necessary assets, a majority of children come to school from low-income families, and child homelessness is a growing problem.
Fortunately, even if many of our nation’s political leaders and the media don’t get it, the American people do. In fact, when voters are faced with ballot initiatives asking them for more taxes to be dedicated to improve services and funding for children, children often fared pretty well. As Elizabeth Gaines from the Forum for Youth Investment points out:
In small counties and large, on both coasts and the Midwest, voters stepped up to the plate to take care of kids — voting to increase their own taxes in order to support services for children and young people. In Jackson County, Missouri, for example, 62 percent of voters opted to increase the sales tax to pay for services for vulnerable children. Twelve out of 15 ballot questions were approved in places as diverse as Baltimore, Maryland, Muskingum County, Ohio, and Boulder, Colorado, using set-asides, new taxes, renewals of existing taxes or soda taxes.
In Massachusetts, voters overwhelmingly defeated Question 2, which was $26 million campaign to undermine public schools and overturn local control and oversight of charter schools in the state, by a 62–38 percent margin.
In Georgia, voters rejected an ALEC-style, anti-democratic measure to have the state create an “Opportunity School District” that would allow private management groups to takeover local schools by a wide 60–40 percent margin.
In Oklahoma, although voters rejected a sales tax increase tax to fund education and early childhood, a slate of 42 “apples” or “pro-education” candidates that committed to supporting public schools and increasing higher education funding was elected with the support of Parents and Educators for Public Education.
And in California, voters passed Propositions 51, 55, and 58 to finance $9 billion in school bonds, a tax that would on wealthier taxpayers to raise an estimated $4 billion per year for schools and health care, and bilingual education for English-language learners, respectively.
Child advocates must embrace the wins and learn from our losses in this election. However, it would be dishonest to say that many child advocates feel that issues of importance to children, which Clinton so strongly championed, may now be lost or that our “window of opportunity” might have closed.
And frankly, there is no doubt that some efforts will be delayed and that we will see some of our political leaders working to take us backwards. However, we know that time only moves forward and that Martin Luther King, Jr., was right when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” (a quote that is currently featured on a rug in President Obama’s Oval Office).
In the near-term, we must focus our work on protecting our nation’s children from the hate and anger that spilled over in this election. There is little more disturbing than these stories from Pennsylvania entitled “Students yelling ‘cotton picker,’ heiling Hitler at this local school” and Michigan entitled “Royal Oak Middle School students chant ‘Build the wall’” to mock fellow Hispanic students.
Other disturbing stories are being reported across the country. In my own neighborhood here in Maryland, swastikas were painted on the walls of an elementary school and in a middle school.
America must be better than this. Children across this country are in fear due to the rhetoric used in this election and the racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobic response it has spawned.
Our nation’s leaders must do some soul-searching and understand that their words, actions, policies, and yes, even their tweets matter because the country and its children are paying attention. We must demand a change in the tone and language from our nation’s leaders.
As child advocates, parents, grandparents, pediatricians, teachers, and professors or volunteers who work with children, children desperately need all of our voices speaking out on their behalf — now, more than ever.
Children need our protection and advocacy in order to build a better America that respects every single child — all of them, regardless of their citizenship status — and helps them reach their God-given potential.
We can no longer accept the fact that far too many politicians are either clueless or unsupportive of our children. If political leaders are doing harm to children, then we must call them out on it. And if they persist, they must go. Ignorance is not an excuse.
Our leaders must do better by our children in all their actions. With every decision that they make, they must ask themselves and answer the simple question: “Is it good for the children?”
The Obama and Trump Administrations and Children
As for how we work with President-elect Donald Trump’s Administration, child advocates should treat him exactly as we did President Barack Obama.
For example, we applauded and supported President Obama when he and First Lady Michelle Obama — one of the nation’s greatest champions for children — worked on an array of issues relating to children’s health, child nutrition, early childhood, home visiting, child abuse and neglect, child tax credits, college affordability, and his executive order that protected DREAMers from deportation (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA).
President Obama’s understand of and commitment to children has been strong on so many issues, and we worked as hard as we could to support him toward our mutual goal of improving the lives of children. There is no doubt that we will miss him, our incredible First Lady, and many of the dedicated civil servants that worked in his Administration toward the betterment of children.
On the other hand, when we disagreed with the Obama Administration, such as the Department of Education’s over-reliance of the testing of our students and charter schools, a housing policy that far too often neglected the needs of homeless children, youth, and their families, or an immigration policy that put children fleeing violence and danger in Central America into private detention facilities, we opposed them. I am sure they didn’t like it when we found ourselves in disagreement, but they understood that we do one thing always, which is to put kids first.
Child advocates have a reputation of being way too wimpy and ineffective. That must end.
If for no other reason, our children need us now, more than ever.
We must do all we can to help President-elect Trump if he wishes to work on initiatives that would improve the lives of children, but also be strong and resolute in our opposition if he is working to push bad policy for children.
Therefore, to the Trump Administration, we begin by urging them to think daily about how their actions will impact America’s 74 million children.
We would also urge them to think about the 16 million children who will be born during President-elect Trump’s four-year term as president. These children — all of them — need to the very best of what American offers them to be successful. They are our future.
As such, we are committed to working with the Trump Administration on any policy issue of importance to children, including offering to work with them and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, on his campaign proposals to expand child care tax deductions, create Dependent Care Savings Accounts, and expand family medical leave.
There are also a number of federal programs that need to be reauthorized and are important to children, including the extremely popular and successful Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). To the President-elect, we would highlight that CHIP was passed when his friend Newt Gingrich was Speaker, is run by our nation’s governors, including his friend Chris Christie and other governors who campaigned for him, and provides child-focused health insurance coverage to over 8 million of our nation’s children in working families. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents overwhelmingly supported the extension of CHIP (74–14 percent) and so today less than 5 percent of our nation’s children are uninsured. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
As was the case with CHIP, we would urge the Trump Administration to maintain a strong bipartisan focus when it comes to children. Progress is best made for children on a bipartisan basis. As an example, we would urge him to with Sens. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Reps. Steve Stivers (R-OH), Rodney Davis (R-IL), and Dave Loebsack (D-IA) to enact their bipartisan legislation, the “Homeless Children and Youth Act,” to create a uniform definition of homeless children across federal agencies and to give local governments more flexibility to address homelessness among children.
At the same time, we must be prepared to be resolute in our opposition to proposals that would do harm to children. To give a few examples, we strongly opposes block granting the Medicaid program, the privatization of our public schools, and repeal of DACA. If the Trump Administration were to move forward on those initiatives or other efforts that would do harm to children, we are deeply committed to being quite vocal and to working as hard as we can in opposition to them.
Child advocates also need to be flexible and find opportunities to make progress whenever and wherever we can. One place ripe for major progress is in our nation’s cities and towns. For example, while we believe a Child Poverty Target should be adopted at the national level, it would be incredible if cities and towns across this country took on this challenge, adopted their own Child Poverty Targets, and pushed their states and federal lawmakers to join them in taking affirmative steps to combat child poverty.
We should also consider expanding our work on other strategies, such as taking more ballot measures directly to voters. That proved quite successful in this election, and so we should consider doing more of it. As Gaines points out, “It’s worth noting that children and youth are by far the most popular ballot items, with consistently better vote tallies than other issues.”
In the end, no matter how you voted in this past election, Hillary Clinton was right about how we should measure greatness in this society. As she said in this ad:
How do we measure greatness in America? The height of our skyscrapers? The size of our bank accounts? No. It’s measured by what we do for our children. . . .
How You Can Help
If you are interested in helping First Focus simultaneously push for a better America for our children and fight efforts that may arise to harm children, you can do two things:
- Join our rapidly growing Children’s Network here. As advocates for children, we can work together and make our voices be heard together by demanding that our nation’s policymakers pay attention to and are held accountable for doing what is right for our children.
- Donate here to help support our work at First Focus to conduct research, develop policy, build political will, and engage policymakers, the media, and our fellow Americans to demand that lawmakers no longer fail our nation’s kids.
BRUCE LESLEY is President of First Focus, a bipartisan advocacy organization committed to making children and their families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions.
Mr. Lesley has more than 20 years of public policy experience at all levels of government and a demonstrated commitment to making children’s lives better. Lesley directs all aspects of policy development and internal operations at First Focus.
In 12 years on Capitol Hill, Lesley worked on health care, education, human services, and immigration issues in several capacities. He served as Senior Health Policy Advisor on the Senate Finance and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committees for U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman. He also worked for U.S. Senator Bob Graham on the Senate Finance Committee, served as minority Chief of Staff for the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and was an aide in the offices of U.S. Representatives Ronald Coleman and Diana DeGette.
Lesley advocated for better healthcare for children as the Director of Congressional Relations for the National Association of Children’s Hospitals and as the Director of Government Relations for Thomason General Hospital, a public hospital in El Paso, Texas. Lesley holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Government and Politics from the University of Maryland, in College Park, Maryland. He also attended the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Texas at Austin.
Bruce resides in Maryland with his wife and children.