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The Podium

Children’s programs need more backing

Election Day is here, and the candidates for president barely mentioned the importance of strengthening programs that benefit poor children. It is a silence that could reverberate for decades to come.

For the first time, Americans believe that the current generation of children will be worse off than their parents — and with good reason. A quarter of America’s 74 million children live in poverty — the highest level in 20 years. The United States has the second worst infant mortality rate among industrialized nations. And our elementary students are far behind children in other countries in reading and math.

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This election is as crucial for children as anyone else. No matter who wins the presidency, or which political party controls the House and Senate next year, our elected leaders will make decisions that will affect the health and well-being of America’s children. But from the ­lack of focus on children this election cycle, you’d have to conclude that they are not a national priority.

Candidates across the country have adopted the common theme of building a more prosperous and more competitive nation. But beyond reforming education (sometimes for the worse) and not saddling kids with debt — important issues, yes — candidates have not laid out an agenda that invests in children.

America’s kids are the future, and programs and services that support them are not given the kind of political or economic backing they deserve. Often, these services are misrepresented as “hand-outs” or “hammocks” promoting a culture of dependency. But many of them are just the opposite — cost-effective ways to feed, clothe, house, or care for the health and well-being of poor and struggling families and work to ensure that they can become healthy, educated, productive, and self-sufficient adults down the road.

Sometime after the election, Congress is expected to address the so-called “fiscal cliff” — a combination of expiring tax cuts and automatic budget cuts that would reduce the deficit, but would also result in 10 percent reductions in defense and domestic spending. Next year, a longer-term solution to the deficit will be debated.

If Congress is looking for ways to address yawning budget deficits, children’s programs are not the place to look. Most of them are geared toward preventing bigger, more expensive problems from developing as children grow. Cuts now will cost more later. In addition, children’s programs make up only 8 percent of federal spending — a small target — and they have solid support among voters. A 2011 survey showed that nearly 90 percent of Americans are opposed to deep cuts in kids programs like Head Start, Medicaid, K-12 education, child nutrition, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid, and college student loans.

Investments in these programs are supported because they work.

Medicaid and CHIP provide health insurance to 90% of children. Early childhood education programs — like Head Start — put kids on a path to academic and career success. Income supports like the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit keep families out of poverty.

A combination of programs that support children’s health are fundamental to improving the lives of America’s kids, enabling them to become strong, productive members of society. Medicaid makes health care available to the lowest income families and the Children’s Health Insurance Program provides coverage for the children of the working poor.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act , when fully implemented, will make health insurance available to 95 percent of America’s children. Kids with pre-existing conditions will be covered, there will be no lifetime caps on coverage, and annual check ups and other preventive services will be readily available to keep kids out of expensive emergency rooms.

The Supplemental Food and Nutrition Program, otherwise known as “food stamps,” has successfully given families a boost into the middle class and helped keep nutritious food on children’s plates. More than three-quarters of SNAP dollars go to families with children. Hunger and malnutrition have the most damaging effects on children, whose educational and developmental and life-long health depend on adequate nutrition.

It would seem that with such widespread support and obvious benefits, candidates would be rushing to embrace and protect these programs. As long-time children’s advocates, we are baffled by the absence of a vigorous discussion of children’s issues during this long campaign season. But it is also easy to understand why so little attention is paid to children if you break down elections in donations and votes.

Kids don’t have money and they don’t vote.

But they do matter.

Alan Houseman is the Chairman of the Children’s Leadership Council.
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