Our legislators must commit to making children a priority

Our legislators must commit to making children a priority
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A new era of divided government, beginning right in the middle of a federal shutdown, doesn’t inspire confidence that our elected leaders will find much to agree on this year. But earlier this month, as Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiNational emergency declaration — a legal fight Trump is likely to win Congress allows Violence Against Women Act to lapse High stakes as Trump, Dems open drug price talks MORE (D-Calif.) took the gavel, she invited dozens of children to the lectern and dedicated the moment to “America’s Children.” Let’s hope that finally, this symbolic gesture will be matched with action — and opportunities — to enact policies that protect children.

Our track record is not great. We have yet to overhaul programs that help provide the necessities of life like housing, education and nutrition for vulnerable children and much work remains to be done to ensure that children who survive dangerous journeys to seek asylum in the U.S. find safety and relief instead of the possibility of abuse or even death.

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The first step to better outcomes for children is lifting more children out of poverty by establishing a national child poverty target, just as has been done in the UK and New Zealand, to cut our child poverty rate in half over a decade. Child poverty is not just immoral — it costs us over $1 trillion a year, representing 5.4 percent of our GDP.

Our legislators must commit to making children a priority and taking action that is in the best interest of the child. The current environment is one in which critical health programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) can be traded away for political purposes, as if kids’ health were a bargaining chip. Children who are uninsured miss more school days, while their parents may miss more days at work.

These kids may end up with lower educational outcomes and go on to earn less money as young adults. Health coverage from birth throughout childhood promotes a good start in life, assures that children’s growth and development will be monitored and assessed at regular intervals and makes them more likely to complete school. There’s no reason we can’t make CHIP permanent instead of leaving it at the mercy of political winds.

Our new Congress’ next challenge comes in February with the start of the FY 2020 budget process. Funding levels for everything will be on the table, including the successful Pre-K program Head Start, Title I funding for schools (including resources for children with disabilities), child care, nutrition assistance, juvenile justice programs and child welfare services.

In addition, we must tackle our nation’s foster care crisis. Nationally, nearly half a million children receive foster care services, at an annual cost of over $25 billion to taxpayers. Yet state child welfare systems are still woefully under-resourced — especially under the weight of the opioid crisis, which has led to increases in out-of-home child placements after nearly a decade of declining numbers. Unfortunately, children and youth in foster care are thrust into institutional settings that are ill-equipped to properly care for them.

As a result, many experience physical abuse, neglect, homelessness, exposure to drugs and violence and other trauma. Congress took a significant first step with the passage of a bipartisan bill to fund upfront services to prevent the need for children to enter foster care in the first place. But it’s only a start — we need to do more to hold government accountable for protecting the children in its care.

We also need to stop traumatizing children. Hundreds of them have been hurt or killed by gunfire in our schools while millions more live with regular lockdown drills and the fear and anxiety that goes along with thinking they may be next.

Meanwhile, immigrant children are suffering unimaginable distress at the hands of our government, which forcibly separated them from their parents and failed to plan for their reunification. Congress must find the will to enact immigration policies that put the interests of children first — that is, to be out of restrictive detention settings and with their families — and muster the courage to take common sense action on gun violence.

The year ahead will be contentious. It will be consumed with speculation about the 2020 elections. But our children can’t wait for Washington’s business as usual to run its course. If anyone in Congress is looking for somewhere to find common ground, let’s honor the Speaker’s dedication and let our children’s needs inspire real action. We can and must do better by our children.

Sandy Santana is the executive director of Children’s Rights. Bruce Lesley is the president of First Focus.