At a Trump rally in January, a girls’ musical trio, The U.S.A. Freedom Kids, gyrated on stage and denounced “enemies of freedom.” The youngest member was 8 years old.
At a rally in New Mexico, a child held a sign as big as she was, printed with words she likely could not spell: “I am not a rapist or a drug dealer.”
And a photo of a young boy and girl holding a “Fuck Donald Trump” sign, likely a manipulated image, went viral in March.
Yet in the discourse surrounding the approaching election, there is little mention in the media of the needs and challenges of America’s youngest citizens. News outlets reported at length on the crying baby Trump “kicked out” of a rally and the 10-year-old boy who yelled, about Clinton, “Take that bitch down,” but almost nothing has been said about the school readiness gap or the one in five American children who live in poverty.
Charlie Bruner, director emeritus of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines, Iowa, said he believes that the American public is sincere in wanting to build a better future for kids. A recent poll ranked children’s health and well-being as the top concern among Iowans, ahead of terrorism, climate change, and government spending. And in a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of Americans predicted that “children today” will grow up to be worse off financially than their parents.
Often, though, the public doesn’t express how much they care. Bruce Lesley, of the child advocacy organization First Focus, described a focus group in which participants were asked to state their biggest political concerns. Only one person mentioned kids, but Lesley said other participants grew defensive when directly questioned about their investment in children’s issues: “Of course I care about kids. I just didn’t think of it!”
“People don’t make the connection,” Lesley explained.
Lesley, Bruner, and other child advocates believe visibility is part of the problem; when issues like early childhood literacy, education, and workforce readiness are kept out of the public eye, it’s easy to forget that everyone has a stake in the future of the next generation.
“It’s not that the candidates aren’t willing to talk about the issues but that we have to get the media to recognize that they matter,” Bruner said.
Ursula Ellis of Every Child Matters said she thinks candidates would talk more about their agendas for children if these issues garnered attention, but “the media covers the positioning in the horserace, candidates’ attacks on each other, and whatever comes up in the news cycle rather than substantive comparisons on policy.”
In short, news outlets give the people what they want: click bait on Senator Clinton’s email scandal or social media discussions comparing The U.S.A. Freedom Kids dance number to similar routines performed for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
It’s a vicious cycle that contributes to what Charlie Bruner called “a toxic campaign environment.” He observed, “We’re seeing an election based not on positions and dialogue but on the stance that the opponent is evil.”
Another reason why children’s issues are not at the forefront of the presidential election is that they have long been relegated to the private sphere. Bruner said that the public “sees children as a family and community issue, not a policy issue. We have respect for the primacy of the family, whereas other countries view kids as a public responsibility.”
In other words, many Americans believe it is best to defer to parents in how to raise their children, even if families struggle to make the choices that most benefit kids. And while some demographic groups feel kids are a public concern—Bruce Lesley cites Hispanic Americans and young women in particular—others fail to see why, say, the childless should view kids as a high priority.
Last November, at a town hall meeting in Iowa, a staffer from Every Child Matters asked Trump how he planned to make childcare affordable for working families. The young woman’s admission that she did not have any children herself was met with laughter from the audience. “Now I feel better if I don’t give her much of an answer,” Trump joked, before remarking, “It’s just interesting that you would bring up that question.” That the young staffer cared about issues beyond her personal sphere seemed to strike Trump as unusual, even inappropriate.
However, the child advocates I spoke to found it notable that childcare has been part of Trump’s campaign at all. For instance, Charlie Bruner viewed the interaction in Iowa as a small victory, observing that “Trump admitted [affordable childcare] was a big issue and said he was surprised it hadn’t come up earlier.” Ivanka Trump even addressed childcare in her introduction speech at the Republican National Convention: “[My father] can’t bear the injustice of … mothers who can’t afford the childcare required to return to work to better the lives of their families.”
But according to Securing America’s Future, a report released by the Child and Family Policy Center in partnership with over 40 Iowa organizations, Trump needs to communicate his views on a range of related issues. The report suggests voters should be asking key questions of presidential candidates on children’s health; early learning; school success; safety and permanence; economic security; equality and opportunity. Bruner said, “We worked hard to make [the report] nonpartisan. We’re not telling candidates what the answers should be. We’re just asking for responses.”
Responses can be hard to come by. Child’s World NEWS received no statement from Trump’s camp and a cursory response from Clinton’s regarding the above six issues. Digital Dialogue, a project run by Every Child Matters that tracks candidates’ positions on key children’s issues, shows discrepancies between both the quantity and quality of candidates’ statements about children. According to the project, Trump has been silent on paid family leave, CHIP, and early learning, while superficially addressing issues like education: “I want the parents, and I want all of the teachers, and I want everybody to get together around a school and to make education great.”
Clinton, on the other hand, has published detailed policy statements on K-12 education, early childhood education, college affordability, autism, paid family leave, and childcare. She has also run campaign ads on children: one that highlights her track record of fighting for kids and another, “Role Models,” that shows children watching some of Trump’s more controversial statements on television.
However, there has been no robust debate between the candidates on the subject of children, at least nothing that has “gone viral” or inspired public outrage. Media coverage of such a conversation could help shine a light on problems that have been overshadowed by flashier and more contentious issues, such as Trump’s oft-mentioned wall.
Like the members of Bruce Lesley’s focus group, perhaps the public need only to be reminded that they are the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors of America’s future to openly acknowledge that early childhood education, child poverty, and children’s healthcare are as deserving of passionate dialogue as gun control or immigration.
Lesley said, “I would love if, during one of the debates, someone would ask a major question about kids.”