The Chronicle of Social Change: Accountability is Key to Capitalizing on New Political Leadership on Child Well-Being

The midterm elections bode well for children, ushering in a new group of politicians that recognizes the importance of investing in a healthy, fair start in life for our children and youth.

The midterm elections bode well for children, ushering in a new group of politicians that recognizes the importance of investing in a healthy, fair start in life for our children and youth.

The timing is right. Recent advances in brain science and other research — and years of nurturing effective programs and policies to scale them up — have brought clarity and consensus about what children need to thrive and succeed. States, local communities, philanthropic organizations and others have begun to back these successful initiatives.

But there are serious threats to this positive momentum which could set back the years of investments in promoting the health, education and well-being of the nation’s children and could stand in the way of the good intentions of newly-elected leaders.

Kids Impact Initiative recently completed a year-long assessment of the current political and policy realities affecting U.S. children’s well-being and how best to address them. Our new report – Accelerating Policymaker Accountability for U.S. Kids’ Well-Being: Charting the Course & A Call to Action – concludes that the risks to children are more urgent than at any time in this century.

It also finds that to blunt these threats and make progress for children, advocates need to build greater political muscle by sharpening our strategies to hold policymakers accountable for how their decisions affect children.

We are particularly concerned that for the first time in our lifetime, children’s needs have become over-politicized. They no longer enjoy the benefit of being bipartisan issues. Even funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has enjoyed bipartisan support since its enactment in 1997, was allowed recently to lapse for nearly four months, a casualty of larger partisan battles.

Children cannot wait on gridlock.

In addition, according to the Urban Institute, over the next decade, every category of federal spending on children — including education, income security and health — will decline relative to the GDP. The children’s share of the federal budget is projected to drop by more than a quarter over the next decade (from 9.4 to 6.9 percent). States and local governments can’t back fill these dollars.

Without a course correction, our kids’ futures are acutely vulnerable because of the growing federal deficit and debt, reduced revenues from recently enacted tax policies, and the way children’s programs are funded in the federal budgeting process (many are discretionary).

On top of that, our political ecosystem puts children at a distinct disadvantage. In the world of unlimited political contributions ushered in by the Supreme Court’s decision on Citizens United, kids simply don’t have enough deep-pocketed champions who stand for all children to compete with other, well-financed interests.

All of these new threats are compounded by income, health and educational disparities that already result in millions of children being denied the opportunity for a fair start in life. The poverty rate for black and Latino children is more than double that of white children, and 82 percent of fourth-graders in low-income families are not proficient readers.

These factors mean that creating strong accountability measures for policymakers’ decisions must become a top priority for advocates for children between now and the 2020 election, and then beyond. This has the potential to bolster those lawmakers who are intent on providing for children, and pressure others to make children’s needs national, state and local priorities.

Fortunately, our research confirms that many leaders for children agree with this emphasis and are engaged in various types of accountability strategies.

Starting with the first White House Conference on Children in 1909, advocates for children have used strategies including report cards on children’s well-being, special legislative caucuses, legislator scorecards, children’s budgets, local revenues earmarked for kids, and even targeted Political Action Committee activities. Many of these activities have been extremely valuable. But the child advocacy field lacks consistent, widely-used accountability tools and a shared message, agenda, set of indicators, and forms of pressure that can be applied to policymakers.

We found wide agreement that the field as a whole needs to build its clout, and soon.

Insights from other social movements and from other countries can inform these efforts — especially practices from other countries whose records are better than ours in achieving positive outcomes for children. A great many countries have established special entities to safeguard and advance the well-being of children — whether through independent oversight structures, children’s commissioners, ombudspersons, or youth congresses. Some, including New Zealand, have taken a step further to develop a Child Impact Assessment Tool, designed to help officials understand the impacts of their policies and legislation on children.

We hope this report serves as a bellwether, baseline and call to action. To jump start the work, our report includes a Policymaker Accountability Accelerator Model and Action Plan. We urge leaders for children to build on these ideas and foundations to support their vital work.

It is truly good news that children’s issues are poised to move up on the political agenda. But kids won’t reap the benefits of this unless accountability from policymakers is strengthened.

One of the best ways we can all help advance the good intentions of child-friendly elected leaders is to demonstrate that standing up for kids is good for them and good for policymakers, and to show that those who oppose this agenda will pay a political price. The momentum created by the recent midterm elections can improve the life prospects for children as long as we all coalesce, heed the warning signs, and hold policymakers accountable.

[Photo: New members of Congress elected in November of 2018.]

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