No Country for Young Children
Jan 30, 2008
On Sunday, January 27, The Washington Post featured a story on the economic opportunities and struggles of retirees and the aging baby boomers. The article focused on the need for new careers, additional education and training, and help in making transitions to second or third careers for this population. Government policies that support adults as they age are an important component of our country s social safety net, but, what about the children? While an agenda that looks at the career prospects for our oldest citizens is interesting and gets a prime position in the Washington Post it does raise the question of whether our youngest citizens are being supported with opportunities that ensure their future success. Is this really a country for young children? Multiple indicators of child well-being suggest that it s not.
Many children living in low-income households are at risk despite their parents best efforts to work and support their families. Over half of young children in low-income households have a parent who works full-time throughout the year and an additional 27 percent have a parent who works either part-time or for part of the year. We need public policies that help these families so that that their children have all that they need to thrive help with health insurance, food security, quality early care and education and other supports.
Since 1965, combined federal spending on children (including spending on education, child care, health care, food stamps, and other social support investments that are targeted to children) has never constituted a sizeable share of total federal spending. In 2006, federal investments targeted to children comprised less than 2 percent of GDP.
Young Children Are the Poorest in the Country
According to the Foundation for Child Development s Child Well-Being Index the overall well-being of the country s children, as measured by multiple key indicators, increased from the mid-1990s through 2002 but has not shown improvement in recent years. Nor have child poverty rates improved, and poverty is a strong predictor of negative child outcomes. Our nation's public policies have been successful at reducing poverty for our oldest citizens, but poverty among children has not changed in recent years and children are more likely to be poor than any other age group in the country.
Of children birth through five, 20 percent (5 million) live in poor families, and 43 percent (10.5 million) live in low-income families. Racial and ethnic minority children have higher rates of poverty and young children living in immigrant families are more likely than children of U.S.-born citizens to be poor. Among all children, infants and toddlers the most vulnerable children are most likely to be poor.
Factors associated with poverty are especially detrimental for young children as their brains are developing rapidly during this phase of life and laying the foundation for future growth and development. Positive early experiences build a strong developmental foundation for children s health, behavior, and learning, whereas negative experiences lead to weaker brain architecture. Families that struggle to pay the rent or find a doctor are more likely to experience the toxic stress that impedes children s ability to learn; contributes to behavioral, social, and emotional problems; and causes and exacerbates poor health. Neuroscience suggests that interventions for vulnerable children should begin at birth or even prenatally, since significant brain development occurs during the earliest years of life.
Young Children Need Help to Succeed
No child should live in poverty. The government can enact and expand a set of simple solutions to help reduce childhood poverty and help young children succeed.
- Food Security: Seventeen percent of all children (through age 18) live in households characterized as food insecure or households that lack the resources to obtain sufficient food for their entire family at all times during the year. The federal food stamp program is intended to alleviate hunger and malnutrition by increasing low-income families access to food. Nearly half of all food stamp recipients are children. As of 2005, the food stamp program served approximately 65 percent of those eligible for assistance.
- Health Insurance: Access to a regular health care provider and health insurance is particularly important for young children, whose ability to grow and learn is hampered if they are sick, if they have an undiagnosed developmental delay or special need, or if their parents and families lack the resources, supports, and skills to care for them. Just last week, the House failed to override President Bush s veto of the State Children s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The program insures over 4 million low-income children; yet, 22 percent of poor children and 17 percent of low-income children remain uninsured.
- Prevention and Diagnosis: Access to health insurance does not necessarily equate to receiving recommended care. For example, only seven states report that 80 percent or more of children ages 1-2 enrolled in Medicaid received at least one developmental screening annually, and only four states reported that rate or higher for 3-5-year olds.
- Income Supports: Low-income working parents do not make enough money to provide for all that their children s and family s needs. The Economic Policy Institute has created estimates of the family budget needed across the country; for example, in Toledo, Ohio, a family of three needs to earn $38,292 more than twice the federal poverty level to pay for housing, food, health care, child care and other basic expenses. A family making minimum wage does not meet this income threshold and will need other supports to make ends meet.
- Early Care and Education: High-quality early childhood programs including Head Start and Early Head Start and quality child care and preschool programs can help young children succeed. The federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs provide comprehensive early education and support services for low-income families, including access to health services and preventive health screenings for young children and their families. Child care assistance can help families access to quality child care that might otherwise be unaffordable and allows parents to retain employment essential to family success.
As the Economic Policy Institute notes, Work supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), child care subsidies and tax credits, and subsidies for housing, transportation, and health care have been effective in increasing post-tax incomes and consumption for working families. But more needs to be done to assist struggling low- and middle-wage workers. Being a working member of our economy has associated costs, such as transportation to and from work and the expense of child care& child care costs, on average, account for around 25 percent of the typical budget for a family with two children. Thus, this particular expenditure is clearly an important leverage point for using work supports to narrow the gap between earnings and needs.
Investments Needed to Promote Child Well-Being
While there are limited federal and state programs designed to support young children and their families, these investments currently fall far short of the meeting the needs of our youngest children. For example, Head Start serves approximately half the eligible population, and Early Head Start serves less than 3 percent of eligible infants and toddlers. It is estimated that only one in seven children who is eligible for child care assistance, based on federal eligibility rules, receives any help. In recent years, many states have taken the lead in addressing early education through the provision of sate-funded pre-kindergarten programs; yet, these programs too often lack the capacity to serve all low-income and at-risk families, and recent research shows that state investments in these programs have not kept pace with inflation.
Currently, the federal government is not doing all that it could to help children and families. Moreover, if current trends in spending continue, the picture for kids may be even bleaker: the share of federal spending that comprises investments in children is predicted to decline by upwards of 14 to 29 percent over the next decade. In order to thrive, children need good health, nurturing families, and positive early learning experiences. Unless there is a change in priorities to increase support for programs that promote children s well-being, the U.S. will remain no country for young children.