As the dust settles on the results of this week’s mid-term elections– a Republican majority in the House led by a new Speaker and a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate–one thing is clear: no matter who sits in Congress, speaking up for kids is not a political choice.
Everything happening on Capitol Hill has implications for the types of job opportunities, housing choices, health care, and long-term benefits available to our nation’s children and youth. Yet, we all know kids can’t vote or meet with their elected officials. Kids can’t serve as expert witnesses at Congressional hearings, or write opinion pieces to their local papers, or organize phone banks or marches or press conferences.
Yet children may arguably have the most at stake in the decisions being made by lawmakers today. They will grow up in the health care system we’re working to reform and the education system we’re working to improve. They will shoulder the burden of our increasing federal deficit, and their future earning potential rests directly on the fate of the current economy. Kids rely on an engaged and informed electorate to speak up for them at the ballot box and a committed, compassionate government to prioritize their needs when developing legislation.
As we turn our attention to the remainder of the 111th Congressional session with an eye on the beginning of the 112th, we must continue to urge Congress to speak up for our children.
One of the most imminent ways they can do so is by passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act during the lame-duck session this fall. During the past year as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), I worked with First Lady Michelle Obama on her “Let’s Move!” initiative to end childhood obesity in one generation of children. A major contributor to obesity is the poor quality of the food that is currently offered to children in our public schools. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed unanimously by the Senate in August and must be passed by the House of Representatives this year, makes great strides toward eliminating this threat to our children’s health.
The bill reauthorizes federal child nutrition programs and expands them to help reduce childhood hunger and improve the nutritional quality of meals. The legislation must be passed as soon as possible so we can start giving our kids the fuel they need to excel in school and grow strong and healthy.
Another way Congress can protect our children’s health is to commit to do no harm to kids in federal appropriations. Despite recent gains, the United States continues to spend less on our children’s health, education, and general welfare than most other developed nations in the world. And it shows.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 90.8 million American children today, or 31% of the total population. Yet a recent study by the AAP reveals that health care services for infants, children and young adults account for only 12% of total annual health care payments, and a joint Urban Institute/Brookings Institute study shows that less than one-tenth of the federal budget was spent on children in 2008. Even more alarming, as the economic stimulus package expires, spending on children will decline, falling to 1.9% of our total Gross Domestic Product by 2019 if current policies continue unchanged.
These numbers are unacceptable, but not unchangeable.
Strong, immediate financial investments in early childhood education, children’s health care and prevention programs will pay extraordinary dividends in years to come. Our children are 100% of our now and 100% of our future.
We must continue to fight for them– in pending legislation, in federal appropriations, and in the communities where we work and live. So to members of Congress who have just a short time left in office and to those whose terms are soon to begin: keep speaking up for our children. It’s not a political choice–it’s a moral imperative.