There are policy solutions that can end the war on childhood, and the discussion should start this campaign season

Six ways to help our youngest populations

A woman marks her ballot with her child looking on in the presidential primary at Bedford High School in Bedford, New Hampshire February 9, 2016.   REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Editor's note:

This story about children and poverty was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced his “war on poverty” during his State of the Union speech on Jan. 8, 1964, citing the “national disgrace” that deserved a “national response.”

Today, many of the poor children of the Johnson era are poor adults with children and grandchildren of their own. Inequity has widened so that people from underserved communities are relatively more underserved, and safety nets that would otherwise allow people to advance are being taken away.

It’s as if there’s a “war on childhood.”

Twenty percent of America’s children live in poverty, with little access to early child care, good schools and quality health care, as well as increased exposure to toxins—which sometimes appear in the tap water that fills their lunch bottles. And in the current pandemic of COVID-19, the availability and cost of tests have meant that many families from underserved communities cannot get these tests.

These factors multiply to create a cycle that jeopardizes the future of the next generation, all at an enormous cost to our society in the form of growing inequity.

On February 10, the Trump administration forecast its budget for the coming fiscal year. While it is unlikely that all of the proposed cuts will go through, those in education—totaling nearly $5 billion—include reductions in English language acquisition ($787 million), arts in education ($30 million), and homeless education ($102 million).

There are policy solutions that can end the war on childhood, and the discussion should start this campaign season.

First, paid family leave: The United States is the only industrialized country with no universal paid family leave. This puts many families with young children in an impossible situation because they can’t afford to take time off to care for their infant and they can’t afford the astronomical cost of child care.

As discussed in a recent report from New America on child care in the United States, paid family leave is how most other countries solve the infant care problem, by giving one or both parents paid leave for up to one year. The United States is one of the very few countries worldwide without universal child care. While costs vary widely by geography, age of child, and form of care, one estimate pegs the cost of full-time day care at $10,000 per year. Though Elizabeth Warren is no longer a 2020 presidential candidate, many supported her much-discussed plan for free or affordable child care for every child in America from birth to school age. The benefits of universal child care are easy to see if we look to countries such as Finland and Sweden, which have offered free universal child care for several decades.

Second, teacher wages: Another issue that plagues our education system is the struggle to increase teacher wages for professionals who are respected for the job they do in helping us raise and educate the next generation. A recent study published in Education Next provides strong evidence that higher teacher pay is associated with an increase in teachers’ cognitive skills, and this in turn is associated with better academic performance by students. The study examined data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that compared 31 countries and found that when teachers have higher cognitive skills, their students perform better academically.

More specifically, increasing teachers’ math skills by one standard deviation was associated with increasing student performance by almost 15 percent of a standard deviation on the PISA math test. A recent report from the European Policy Institute of the Open Society Foundations suggests that children who have a higher quality of education are also more resistant to fake news. And the state of Maryland very recently introduced its “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” designed to reform education based on what works in other successful nations. One of the policy initiatives is to increase teacher quality by raising teacher salaries.

Third, adequate nutrition: Most of our peer countries also provide healthy lunches for children at school. The evidence linking higher nutrition to brain growth and to better student outcomes abounds in the scientific literature.

Fourth, economic redistribution: A 2016 study published in the American Economic Review provides clear evidence that some well-designed programs—sometimes referred to as “cash transfers to poor families”—lead to better outcomes for children in terms of education, income, and nutritional status. The “Mothers’ Pension” program (1911-1935) inspired a number of more recent projects that also include relocation as a stimulus to reduce inequity, and some are producing strong results.

Fifth, reduce exposure to toxic chemicals: Easing regulations on toxic chemicals is a formula for stunting baby brain growth. A 2006 study in Pediatrics found that prenatal exposure to a chemical commonly used as an insecticide is linked to lower birth weight, motor delays, working memory problems, and ADHD behaviors. Brain abnormalities have been found in young children who’ve been exposed to common pesticides or to environmental toxins that arise from behaviors like smoking. These findings are supported by additional research conducted across different populations, geographical locations and methods of measuring exposure.

Sixth, climate change: There are growing concerns about how climate change affects children’s health and development. According to a 2019 report from the The Lancet, children will suffer health effects related to climate change more dramatically than others because of their physiology. For example, children’s breathing rates are higher than adults, so they absorb more air pollution. Of note, research published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that children living in Southern California who experienced better air quality had more functioning lung tissue. Thus, climate change is not merely a broad issue affecting adult behaviors, but also one with far-reaching effects on the health of young children. It simply must be a priority.

While this list articulates some of the ways that we can, today, tend to our youngest citizens, even this list is incomplete. We should remind ourselves that in 1989, the United States joined the United Nations in supporting the “rights of the child.” Two points that motivated this document are particularly poignant, as these surreptitious battles progress: “The actions, or inactions, of government impact children more strongly than any other group in society,” and the “costs to society of failing its children are huge.”

We, as a nation, are engaged in a war on childhood. And it is imperative that this election season, our children become a dominant part of the political platform. For too long, they have been neither represented nor protected. The cascading problems that result from our inattention no doubt now require a strategic response that involves multiple solutions—a kind of “surround sound” approach, as no single magical fix can solve the issue of poverty or the issue of inequity. But one way to start is to commit to prioritizing the rights of children.