America’s children are not alright. At First Focus on Children, a federal advocacy organization, we tirelessly work to improve the lives of children and families by advocating for federal policies that put the interests of children first. The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted every aspect of children’s lives, shedding light on the many historic inequities that existed for children before the virus.
What is the state of our children today? The rates of child poverty, child hunger, and child homelessness have increased. Pediatric mental health emergency room visits have skyrocketed, the closures of schools and child care centers have disrupted the learning of nearly every child in America, and pediatric cases of COVID have increased exponentially. In addition, nearly 140,000 children across the country have lost a primary caregiver to the virus.
The outlook for children is not positive. However, we know that directed federal policies can make a huge difference in the lives of children. The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in early 2021, made historic investments in early childhood, child care, education, family medical leave, child nutrition, and health care. The bill also improved the Child Tax Credit, allowing nearly all families with children to receive monthly payments. Before 2021, the credit had been a relatively modest tax credit that helped mostly middle-income families with children. Because of the American Rescue Plan, the Child Tax Credit became a nearly universal child benefit that reached 60 million children in the U.S. and provided a vital lifeline for struggling families. Research showed the credit reduced child poverty, and helped families purchase food and other necessities. However, because of political gridlock, the Child Tax Credit payments were not made permanent and stopped being sent to families at the beginning of 2022.
The improvements to the Child Tax Credit are just one example of directed policies that improve the lives of children everywhere. What other policies do advocates push for? Keep reading to learn.
Improving Children’s Health Insurance Coverage
Since its creation nearly 25 years ago, The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) has been an essential source of children’s health coverage ensuring access to high-quality, affordable, pediatric-appropriate health care for children in working families whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to purchase private health insurance on their own. For the last six years, children (especially children of color) have seen large drops in coverage - even before the devastating pandemic. However, CHIP is the only public health insurance program that is not permanently funded, meaning its fate depends on legislative action. Through legislative action, CHIP can be made permanent - ensuring that the health coverage of children is no longer subjected to arbitrary deadlines and funding cliffs that lead to chaos, distress, and anxiety for families all across this country.
Increasing Access to Nutritious School Meals
Before COVID-19, 11.2 million children lived in a food-insecure household. The public health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus only exacerbated the problem, leaving nearly 15 million children without enough to eat in 2020. Food insecurity—which leads to poor nutrition—directly influences health and well-being throughout a child’s life. Food insecurity is specifically associated with poorer physical and mental health, lower school performance, and diminished psychosocial functioning. School meals are an incredibly effective way to get nutritious food to students who are growing and developing, a time when proper nutrition is of utmost importance. Thus, all children should have steady access to free school meals throughout the year regardless of income. A universal school meals program would remove the stigma associated with free school meals and ensure that every student would receive nutritious meals while they are at school.
Reducing the U.S.’s Stubbornly High Child Poverty Rate
In 2020, 16% of children lived in poverty - a rate too high for a prosperous country such as the United States. Poverty is a policy choice, as we know what is necessary to get kids out of poverty. In fact, child poverty actually went down during the pandemic due to the influx of federal aid directed to struggling families, such as the first two rounds of Economic Impact Payments, expansions to Unemployment Insurance benefits, nutrition assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Pandemic-EBT program, and more. While the pandemic has uprooted the lives of nearly every American, it showed us that when we have the political will to act, we can reduce child poverty.
In conclusion, children need our help. In the world of children’s advocacy, we stand at a proverbial crossroads. Our political leaders have made extraordinary and desperately needed investments in our children to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Through advocacy and political action, we cannot let our nation backtrack on such progress. Our future generations depend on us.
- Social Policy