Federal Spending: With Regard to Children's Welfare, Bucks Stop Here

Think seniors are the victims in the current federal budget debate? Think again.

One of the hottest political issues in the coming election year will no doubt be how to shore up the Social Security program when the baby boomers start to retire en masse. This is an important issue that must be addressed, but it greatly overshadows a little-known fact: that it is children who get the short end of the stick when it comes to federal spending. The bulk of U.S. federal spending goes to defense, Social Security and Medicare. Children are not a budget priority despite decades of solid research showing the importance of investing in children ages 0-5, because these are critical years for brain development.

According to a 2010 report from the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, in 2009 less than 10 percent of federal budget outlays were devoted to children. To put this another way, in 2007 total public spending (federal/state/local) on children was $10,642 per child while public spending on older adults was $24,300 per adult. More shockingly, perhaps, is the finding that children's share of domestic federal spending shrank by 6 percentage points between 1960 and 2009 while spending on the nonchild portions of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid doubled. Is this the result of societal attitudes that devalue children or the fact that senior citizens are a strong and mobilized voting bloc?

According to Lilian Katz, an expert in early childhood education, "Each of us must come to care about everyone else's children. ... The good life for our own children can be secured only if a good life is also secured for all other people's children." Other Western industrialized countries in Europe and Scandinavia have made this paradigm shift as demonstrated by public policies that invest in children, such as family allowances (a monthly stipend given to families regardless of income that helps to cover the cost of raising children), universal health care, government-subsidized child care for working parents and paid family leave, to name a few.

In contrast, U.S. rankings on international comparisons of child poverty, infant mortality and student performance in math and science are embarrassingly poor. Federal and state governments have often failed the young by allowing millions to forgo health care coverage; ignoring countless children who attend highly segregated, substandard schools; and looking the other way when children are failed by the state child welfare agencies designed to protect them.

A recent story of a 4-year-old child who was killed by her mother, after being abused and severely malnourished, made front-page news in The New York Times. The mother has been charged with murder, the grandmother with manslaughter. However, since this family was involved with child protection authorities, two city child-welfare workers are being prosecuted for criminally negligent homicide.

For decades, child-welfare advocates such as the Child Welfare League of America and the Children's Defense Fund have worked tirelessly to galvanize lawmakers to focus more on the welfare of children and the challenges facing child-welfare systems that are severely underresourced. However, there is one concrete step that could set us on the right path in seriously improving the lives of our nation's children.

President Obama should convene a White House Conference on Children, which would bring together child-welfare experts from across the country to review the current state of children in the U.S. and identify strategies for improvement. Starting in 1909, this conference was held every 10 years. However, the last one was held in 1970. Positive outcomes of previous conferences include the creation of the Child Welfare League of America; improvements in state regulation of child labor; the creation of the American Pediatric Society; and efforts to end the systematic institutionalization of children.

A White House Conference on Children would help to shine a spotlight on the needs of children. It could also help educate lawmakers on two important programs for children ages 0-5 that are supported by loads of research and offer a lot of bang for the buck: (1) early childhood education programs, and (2) home visiting programs, which provide support and parenting education to new parents. Even a divided Oregon Legislature sees the light. This session, it passed a joint memorial (HJM 12) urging Congress to convene a WHCC.

Our politicians often talk endlessly about "family values," echoing that "children are our future." In actuality, we are a nation that had a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals before a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We are one of only two nations in the world that has failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (the other is Somalia). And we are a nation that puts children at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to federal spending. A federal bill calling on the president to convene a WHCC failed in the 111th Congress.

Perhaps a new consciousness will emerge in the United States, expressed eloquently by author and activist Pearl S. Buck: "If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all." Making sure that our parents and grandparents are taken care of in their golden years is priceless. Making sure that our children get a good start in life -- equally priceless.

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