We Measure and Are Accountable for the Things We Care About

So Why Aren’t We Doing This for America’s Kids?

It’s a fact: As a nation, we measure and hold ourselves accountable when we care about something. We hear almost daily about the gross domestic product’s ups and downs, and we look to the GDP to keep us on track toward a productive economy. Policymakers use the jobs report each month to size up our economy’s outlook and decide if and when a stimulus may be needed. The interest rates and lending rates let consumers prepare their finances and make buying decisions. If something is important enough to us, we find a way to measure where we stand and use that both to make progress toward an important goal   and to take corrective action if we backslide.

So why don’t we measure and hold ourselves accountable for how well children in the United States are faring?

One of the reasons is that we don’t have a widely accepted mechanism to track progress for kids and take corrective action when needed. Not coincidentally, services and programs that benefit kids and families are losing ground, and all of us are paying the price of kids’ declining health and educational readiness.

Take for instance that according to the Pentagon, more than 70 percent of all young adults in the U.S. would not qualify for military service today because they do not meet the minimum educational standards or health requirements to serve. The failures of our education system, the national obesity epidemic, drug use, and other factors have far-reaching consequences for our young people. And yet we have no widely used, comprehensive way to keep track of these effects in order to counter them.

Today, children face some of the biggest threats in decades to their chances to grow up healthy, well-educated, and prepared for a productive future. With so many kids’ programs now in jeopardy due to federal actions and inaction, our top priority must be to protect these vital investments. But while we do, we must also address this lack of accountability to our kids which has led to neglecting kids’ needs for far too long.

Unless we wake up and take action, this troubling situation will get worse. Right now, we are on a track to reduce even further our investments in kids’ education, health, and well-being. From 2010 to 2016 the children’s share of the federal budget decreased from 10.7 to 9.8% and is projected to decline by nearly a quarter to 7.5% by 2027. (In 2016, the federal budget allocated to children $377 billion of the $3.9 trillion in federal outlays.) Even more alarming, children’s programs are projected to get just one cent of every dollar of the projected increase in federal spending over the next decade. And if certain provisions of the proposed tax legislation are signed into law, the situation for kids will grow even worse, affecting the next generation of soldiers, teachers, business leaders, health care and other workers, and voters that our nation depends upon.

So, why is this happening? Why don’t we have ways we hold ourselves accountable for kids’ well-being?

Kids don’t vote. They don’t pay lobbyists. And while certain children’s issues in the public sphere used to be nonpartisan, in these highly polarized times with fierce competition by interest groups for resources, investments in kids have suffered.

In addition, the very structure of the federal budget disadvantages programs for kids. Many programs like disability benefits, health care for seniors, and interest on the national debt are “locked in” expenditures, as they should be; by contrast, funds for children’s nutrition, child care, education, and many health programs are “discretionary.” This means that whenever decision-makers look to cut budgets at any level of government, resources for kids’ programs are disproportionately vulnerable and are usually negatively impacted.

That’s why it is time to develop a holistic mechanism to measure, monitor, and enforce ways that ensure our nation is investing fully and effectively in the outcomes we want for our nation’s children. While we measure certain aspects of child well-being such as graduation rates or health insurance coverage, we lack a comprehensive approach to ensure we are achieving our goals for kids across the board. As battles over the allocation of public dollars heat up, it is vital that the needs of children are protected in a structured, sustained way.

We have a wealth of examples of successful accountability strategies — including ways to mark and maintain progress — that have become embedded in public life. Over the past 100 years, for example, we have created and refined measures for what constitutes a clean environment and what constitutes a safe car; and those have positively changed our expectations and results. Air quality in many parts of the country is cleaner, and seat belts are ubiquitous. We have made similar progress gaining accessibility for people with disabilities, through the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in lifting the elderly out of poverty. These stand as positive examples of achieving social goals by measuring our progress and holding ourselves accountable to them.

Surely, we can achieve comparable progress for the nation’s children. As we press forward to create a holistic accountability mechanism for kids, we can start by identifying four crucial elements, each of which it needs to incorporate:

Firstwe must agree on a measure of kids’ well-being that we, as a society, believe matters and accurately reflects their conditions;

Second, we need a nonpartisan, independent, and lasting structure inside or outside of government that tracks progress, reports it to the public, and drives needed corrective action;

Third, there must be an engaged citizenry that shows its concern by consistently voting for elected officials and supporting decisions that are good for kids; and

Fourth, there must be incentives for progress for our leaders and institutions and also consequences for failure to achieve shared goals for kids.

We use a holistic accountability approach for other complex challenges, including the economy, industry, and the environment.

These are all important priorities. So are our children. Now, we need to measure up for them.