A “new normal” for the country’s children: How we can put kids’ needs front and center as we rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis

While COVID-19 itself has not appeared to hit children as tragically hard as it has others in our communities, the pandemic is nonetheless threatening the future growth and healthy development of children.

Already, more children are going hungry. And with the closing of schools, millions of children are projected to fall behind in their studies and, as a result, earn less in the future. Children are also at greater risk of child abuse and other forms of trauma. Meanwhile, chronic lack of reliable and affordable health care and child care, unresolved immigration laws, and poverty that keeps families on the edge of housing insecurity are causing many families at the margins to go over the edge.

As Vann R. Newkirk II wrote in the Atlantic, “All the evidence suggests that children — and poor children especially — will bear an incredible burden during the coronavirus pandemic and the attendant economic shocks.” These setbacks can last a lifetime.

So as our thoughts turn to recovering and rebuilding, our children must be front and center. Governments at the state, county, and city levels are uniquely poised to kickstart a “new normal” for children, and there are proven approaches to help measure and account for the well-being of our nation’s children.

Here’s how:

To start, we need a place in government — at the local, state, and federal levels — whose sole job is to make sure all children can thrive, their voices are heard, and that efforts on their behalf are in sync across government. Child-oriented structures in government will help government do the right thing for kids and provide the accountability the public wants.

More than ever, we need an independent commissioner for America’s children — as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and European countries have established — to serve as children’s eyes and ears, stand up for them when policies are made, and shine a spotlight on their changing needs. The Children’s Commissioner for England, for example, recently used her public platform to call attention to the coronavirus and children’s mental health and offer resources to support young people and their parents. Leaders for U.S. kids have long advocated for an independent children’s commissioner. Now is the time to make it happen.

At the state and local level, elected officials can follow the example of leaders like New Mexico’s Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham. The governor reactivated a children’s cabinet, appointed a director, and elevated the position — placing it in the governor’s office, working with her and her leadership team. Already the cabinet has brought in new federal funding to expand early learning in New Mexico and modernized IT systems so different parts of state government that work with the same children can to a better job.

In addition, we need to analyze the impact on children as governments respond to the new era of COVID. Simple child impact assessments can help federal, state, and local governments make good decisions affecting children as they reinvent their policies, budget priorities, and governmental structures.

An impact assessment approach is used widely in the U.S. in other fields — such as environmental impact assessments, health impact assessments, and fiscal impact assessments. And though child-focused impact assessments have rarely been put to use for kids in the U.S., governments around the globe have used them to help guide government decisions so they both benefit young people and, importantly, do no unintentional harm.

As Congress works on new COVID-19 response bills — and as states and localities do the same — they should answer these questions about the potential impact of new legislation on children:

1. What elements of these proposals directly affect the trajectory of children’s lives?

2. What pressing needs that children and youth are experiencing now are not addressed in these proposals?

3. Do the proposals direct resources to the groups of children who face the highest hurdles to thriving at home and in school?

4. What percentage of the money allocated benefits children directly?

Over the longer term, as new government structures and initiatives are created that respond to COVID-19, more comprehensive impact assessments can be structured into decision-making as laid out in Kids Impact Initiative’s new action brief, “Child Impact Assessments: A Missing Piece to Spur Progress for U.S. Children.”

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our country and shaken our society to the core. In responding to this crisis, we have the opportunity make sure that children and their future are front and center in recovery efforts. We owe it to them to hold ourselves and our policymakers accountable now.

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