The State Of The Children's Union

I have always tried to live my life by the words of Jackie Kennedy, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.”  Turns out, if I’m any measure, you can do quite a bit of bungling and still have some pretty decent kids. As the President took the measure of the nation Tuesday night, he necessarily devoted some attention to the country’s children, but if we’re to heed the words of Jackie Kennedy, a closer look is merited. While there is no doubt that the President and First Lady have made great strides in improving the lives of our children, the state of their union is still a mixed bag.

Of course, in the United States we can be grateful that we have tackled some of the most heinous abuses to children that still exist worldwide.  We have diligently enforced laws against child labor, child pornography and other forms of human trafficking.  Every one of our children has access to education, however unequal in its implementation. And since LBJ’s war on poverty, we don’t generally find children rummaging for food in landfills or completely abandoned to their own survival. Thankfully, we have rarely seen the problem of using children in a military capacity, and no longer do we have a culture that indoctrinates children in race-based violence,  although some of the militia encampments could arguably fall into that category.

Still, you might be surprised to know that Traffick911 called on the Super Bowl XLV host committee to take a stand against child sex trafficking in Dallas/Ft. Worth during Super Bowl weekend. It turns out the Super Bowl, an event that brings most families together, is a hellish weekend for thousands of kids, many as young as 11 and 12, who are not lucky enough to have anything resembling a nurturing home.

But these kids didn’t arrive at such a tragic end without the social and educational systems failing them as surely as their families have. Ultimately, this is what a children’s agenda is all about, providing as stable a foundation as possible so that our children can thrive and find their talents and fulfill their dreams.  As the President frequently says, “We know how to do it,” but as with most other issues, “We simply have not had the leadership to make this a priority.”

Fortunately there has been some movement in the leadership department under President Obama.  Clear progress on children’s issues has been made in the last two years, most notably in health care with the passing of SCHIP, the Affordable Care Act, and Let’s Move, Mrs. Obama’s childhood obesity campaign.

The number of uninsured children in America is the lowest it has been in 20 years, thanks to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  This number will increase even further with the reauthorization of SCHIP, which provides health coverage to almost 40 million children each year and will eventually add 11 million more. Unlike the previous recession in 2004 when enrollment of children in SCHIP actually declined due to state budget cuts, the assistance from a Democratic House and later the Stimulus Act provided the necessary funds to cover additional children, increasing 10% in 2008 and 3% in 2009.  Another 4 million immigrant children have benefited as well, as the federally-mandated five-year waiting period was eliminated as part of the Affordable Care Act.

The President also signed into law the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, calling it “vitally important” to our country’s children. This bill completely overhauls the school lunch guidelines to guarantee nutritious quality food instead of frozen and processed food that contributes to obesity.  It also provides increased lunch rates, funds for school gardens and farm-to-school programs, addresses food deserts, creates policies that automatically qualify kids and communities for free lunches, and much more.

So we have made great strides in the health of our country’s children and in that regard I would say the state of their union is strong, provided we build on the foundations laid.

With a healthy body, we need a healthy mind, and the President has continued to stress the importance of improving education in this country. Replacing NCLB is obviously a great place to start and I’m sure teachers across the country rejoiced. But the success of a school like Bruce Randolph proves that change can happen, regardless of the surrounding environment, and that social conditions are not an excuse to justify failure in any school.

The NAEP Science Report that was released recently indicates that, despite the grandiose promises of NCLB, our students are not making significant improvement. Only 60% of high school seniors could even exhibit proficiency levels at the Basic standards tested. Forget about the advanced Proficient standard, only 1% of high school seniors could attain that level.  Secretary Duncan’s statement sums it up:

“The results released today show that our nation’s students aren’t learning at a rate that will maintain America’s role as an international leader in the sciences. When only 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers.”

In this light, the goal of recruiting 100,000 science and math teachers is not only promising for our children, it is absolutely critical to the survival of this country. How can the US compete in a technologically-dependent world if only 1% of our students are proficient in math and science?

There have, though, been solid advances in each area of the President’s five pillars of education reform, as laid out in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2009: early childhood; standards and testing; teacher quality; innovation; and higher education.  HHS announced plans to strengthen Head Start and Early Head Start by raising standards, providing more training and implementing family engagement strategies.  46 states and Washington DC worked together to craft common education standards and at least 27 states have adopted them. Race to the Top and STEM have been at the forefront of the President’s education agenda, and drastic changes are taking place in preparing teachers and classroom structure.

College, too, has seen sweeping changes in both the way students receive financial assistance and the focus on community colleges as an avenue to a lucrative career.  As with the health of our children, we are also building a strong foundation for education, and with continued improvements we might one day be the educational envy of the world again.

Another growing need is quality child care. Last year Ezra Klein gave his column over to Dylan Matthews, who interviewed Edward Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology, emeritus, at Yale University and one of the founders of Head Start. While I disagree that home child care is necessarily poor quality, I do appreciate Zigler’s point that we have put more effort into increasing the numbers of “containers” for children than creating nurturing learning environments in those “containers”.

“The point I’d make up front, which ought to be key, is, in this country, I’ve been at it 45 years, and after all these years people simply do not understand what child care really is. Everybody wants to approach it as a service that permits parents to go to work. And that, of course, it is, but for somebody like me it’s much much more than that. The quality of that care is a major determinant of children’s growth and development. That’s where children are in their first five years of life before they ever enter school. What they experience there is really going to determine their school readiness and the foundation of their entire future life. And it’s simply poor quality.”

He goes on to express what we hear so many times, that quality child care is already something we know how to do. Zigler references the work of Linda Smith at the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), who developed the military child care system. He says, “We’ve done it for the military, we’ve done it for federal employees in the GSA. They have these child care centers in federal buildings all over the country. They’re wonderful.”

While there is nothing like a national child care agenda on the horizon, the President has increased funding for low-income subsidies and a child care tax credit increase. Sad to say, it still isn’t on a level that we received when the child care tax credit was first introduced in 1982. I also haven’t seen any initiative to improve the care provided by the hodgepodge of providers, from sometimes understaffed centers to the neighborhood mom with a swing set in the back yard. Again, I don’t think all care has to follow a regimented agenda to be labeled “quality”, but it is true that babies should not lay in cribs all day due to the expense of one-on-one care.

Finally, there is the issue of poverty, which while not a direct cause of an unhealthy lifestyle or failure to learn, is an undeniable contributor.  Not surprisingly, with the economic collapse, the numbers of children in poverty are on the rise.  The National Center for Children in Poverty estimates 21% of children lived in poverty in 2010, which is up from the figures in the Annie E. Casey Databook, which documented 18 percent of children living in poverty in 2008, up in 32 states compared to 2000.  Among the states, the child poverty rate for 2008 ranged from a low of 9 percent in New Hampshire to a high of 30 percent in Mississippi. As shocking as that is, it’s nowhere near the 56 percent of children living in poverty in Puerto Rico, which is a US territory after all.

The NCCP also released a statement suggesting measures to help families in poverty, which mostly consists of maintaining existing programs such as unemployment benefits, state-level child care subsidy programs, publicly financed health insurance programs and health insurance premium subsidy programs for low-wage workers and small businesses. As mentioned before, the stimulus provided additional assistance to the states to meet the increasing demand on these programs, but it also increased the amount of the benefit for food stamps and unemployment, and created the temporary Making Work Pay $400 tax credit.

But the best hope of changing the course of these children’s lives lies in changing the neighborhoods they live in. Last September, 23 “Promise Neighborhoods” were announced, modeled after the 96 blocks in Harlem where Geoffrey Canada has carved out a unique community that follows kids from birth to career with education and social service support. The President asked for $200 million in the 2011 budget to fund the programs to support these “Promise Neighborhoods”, and asked for another $10 million to help other communities develop grant requests of their own.

So the children in our country have a lot of reason to hope for a future brighter than what they may have been born into. But these programs are not only critical for the children who currently use them, they are also the stepping stones to the middle class, which is the underpinning of our economy.

Public schools, public libraries, public parks, public policing, public roads; these have been the traditional supports that families relied on as they worked, played, and lived the “American Dream”.  Some communities never had the money to build this foundation and consequently deteriorated to the point where their need is even greater today. The needs in other communities simply shifted, from a public park to a child care program, or public roads to public transportation.  In order for all of our children to thrive in this new technological century, we need to be as dedicated to public works as our grandparents were under Roosevelt and Truman and Kennedy and Johnson.

That’s all we’re really talking about here, improving communities for parents so parents can improve the lives of their children. The President’s agenda, along with a tweak here and there, will guarantee that the State of Our Children’s Union will be strong.