A century ago, America’s children faced dire conditions: an economy that relied on child labor put millions of young people in harm’s way, and a lack of adequate health care contributed to high mortality rates. In 1900, nearly 1 in 4 children would die by the age of 5.
It took a concerted effort by voters—especially women voters—and legislators to produce the important and foundational policies that would change this reality and protect kids for years to come.
Laws were enacted like the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act; child labor reforms were put in place; new laws encouraged public education; and a new part of government, a Children’s Bureau, was established to investigate and report on “all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life among all classes.”
These policies that we take for granted now only exist because voters, concerned citizens, and legislators came together to speak up for and take care of kids.
Now, at the start of a new decade, we face another inflection point. America’s children are again in serious danger––and it’s up to all of us to protect children and make sure they can reach their full potential.
The past decade has been marked by alarming trends for America’s children. In many ways, our nation’s young people are less safe, less healthy, and less secure than they were a decade ago.
Simply put, the kids are not alright.
Today, many more children in the U.S. die from guns than do active-duty police and military combined, according to a recent report in the American Journal of Medicine. Suicide rates for children have increased dramatically—for children ages 10-14 the suicide rate nearly tripled in a decade. Depression and anxiety abound.
Maybe some of the anxiety is from the fact that climate change isn’t just theoretical for children anymore. A recent report in The Lancet raised concerns that climate change will hurt children the most. Said report co-author Dr. Renee Salas, “A child born today, as they go through their lives, they are going to be increasingly exposed to more and more harms…such as increased illness from air pollution due to fossil fuel burning and the spread of diseases like cholera…to areas in the U.S. where they have not been before.”
As inequality soars, more children go without the food and basic necessities they need. Homelessness is a fact of life for 1.4 million school-aged children. Very young children are especially vulnerable to being homeless—45% of children in federally funded shelters are under the age of 5. More school children are unable to pay for their lunch and are being penalized or shamed.
Taken together these and other reports raise blaring alarm bells. But we seem unable—or maybe unwilling—to recognize what’s happening to our children and to act as a nation to change that.
It’s time for another wave of breakthrough policies focused on the well-being of children. And there’s growing consensus on what to do.
Policies like paid family leave and support for early learning and high-quality childcare will offer families the time and resources to raise and provide for their own children. Action on climate change and gun safety will ensure young people can live without fear in their schools and neighborhoods. A renewed focus on children would also reduce homelessness, seed more opportunities for access to high-quality higher education, and address children’s mental health as well as physical health needs.
In 1912, it was the Congressional testimony of a 14-year-old-girl about her treatment as a child-laborer that caught the public’s attention and helped spur policymakers to act to protect children, though the fight was long and hard. Today, young gun safety and climate activists are stirring the conscience of the country and leading the way with solutions. Now it is up to elected officials, civic leaders, activists, and voters to step up.
Election 2020 offers voters and elected officials alike the opportunity to put the well-being of our kids at the center of national policy, just as the nation rose up a century ago. We voters must choose who to support based on how our elected officials cast their votes on decisions that matter for kids. And we need to ask first-time candidates to commit that they will lead for children. Once in office, elected officials must demonstrate to all their constituents how they are champions for children.
Maybe that way, 100 years from now, Americans will take for granted policies that support families and a country that puts its children first. Just as our predecessors did in their time, we will have met the challenge of our time and come through for our nation’s children.
To get started, visit https://kidsimpact.org/election-2020/ today.