"Kids First" Politics, Round Two

The blue-ribbon commission has an inauspicious history in American public policy. Most often, assembling a dozen or two bipartisan grandees to deliberate soberly about a problem for several years is merely a way of evading the problem.

But there are exceptions. Though it will probably pass unnoticed, Dec. 22 of this year will mark the 20th anniversary of the creation of one of the most successful policy commissions in modern U.S. history: The National Commission on Children. Chaired by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the esteemed group four years later issued a report, Beyond Rhetoric, which was most notable for its unanimity. Without dissent, though not without struggle, 32 members -- who ranged from former Health and Human Services official and abstinence advocate Wade Horn, Allan Carlson of the paleo-conservative Rockford Institute, and Kay Coles James (later of the Bush administration and Regent University) on the right, to Bill Clinton and Marian Wright Edelman on the left -- accepted recommendations for a $1,000 refundable tax credit for children, improvements to child-support enforcement, a health-care program for children and pregnant women, and more investment in child care and Head Start.

While the unanimity was impressive, the report's reception suggested that the title Beyond Rhetoric was meant ironically, since the recommendations, and their $52 billion annual price tag, seemed hopelessly unrealistic at the time. Rep. Patricia Schroeder dismissed the report, predicting that "people are going to cite it for about a month" before it would be forgotten, and Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute charged that it was "so unrealistic it threatens to divert attention from the incremental increases that were ready to happen this year."

But then a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance: Almost every one of the commission's recommendations became law. The State Children's Health Insurance Program passed six years later. A child tax credit became law the same year, and later was expanded, and made partially refundable as of 2001 -- so that working families who don't pay income tax would get a benefit. All the recommendations for child-support enforcement passed, and have since contributed to dramatic increases in collections on behalf of American children. Today, child support lifts more than a million kids out of poverty annually. The commission's, and Rockefeller's, most notable achievement might not have been legislative, but in co-opting prominent social conservatives and forcing them to acknowledge that if they cared about families and children, they had to put the federal government's money where their mouths were. Much of what became the first President Bush's "kinder, gentler nation" and the second's "compassionate conservatism" stemmed from that moment of apparent consensus.

The commission on children was the centerpiece of what might be called the first wave of kids-first politics. Beginning in 1985, when Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt devoted his entire State of the State speech to children, earning ridicule from the state's leading paper for talking about "quiche" rather than the "meat and potatoes" of Arizona politics, the idea began to take hold that children could lead us to the restoration of the promise of liberal politics. Just as Social Security and Medicare set the stage for activist government by protecting the elderly, supports for children would restore the sense of cooperation and mutual obligation that had been lost in the Reagan era.

A couple of years later, a memo from pollster Stanley Greenberg entitled "Kids as Politics" argued that despite the temptation to "view kids as soft, secondary and timeless ... 'kids' in the present period are different. ... When candidates talk about kids," he contended, "they are talking about the fundamental economic and social terrain on which Democrats must run." Improvement in the living conditions and future prospects for children was not the only or even the primary goal. Rather, kids would help Americans "rediscover government": "Kids bring the Democrats back into the homes of average voters, speaking about economic issues of a fundamental sort. ... Kids and public policy are a natural and credible combination."

Twenty years later, while kids-first politics has been a policy success, it has not quite lived up to Greenberg's expectations. Rather, conservatives who understood the political power of children supported certain children's programs, such as S-CHIP, in isolation, cutting around them like paper dolls. Meanwhile, they continued to push successfully the agendas of tax-cutting and economic individualism that narrow the reach of such programs. Despite an increase in investment in kids' programs -- a study by the Congressional Budget Office in 1999 found that the tax credits, health-care expansion, and other benefits amounted to an increase of $45 billion in annual spending on kids in working families since 1984 -- and significant improvements in child poverty and other measures of well-being, child poverty rates began to crawl back up in this decade. The children who benefit from such programs live in the very families that are the victims of the economic insecurity conservative policies promote.

The failure to date of kids-first politics to transform the politics of social investment or help Americans "rediscover government" is not merely a problem for partisan Democrats or liberals. It is a problem for kids, since Head Start and quality child care cannot make up for the consequences for children of widening inequality and deepening insecurity for the families in which children are raised.

But the first wave of kids-first politics ended some time ago, with President Bush's veto of the expansion of S-CHIP marking its last rites. The choice between continued tax-cutting and positive government support for families with children can no longer be avoided. Yet faced with that choice, all of the Republican presidential candidates (including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who sometimes talks a good game but puts no policy substance behind his rhetoric) have chosen tax cuts. The social conservatives like Wade Horn have retreated to promoting abstinence and marriage. The "Sam's Club Republicans" that the young conservative writers Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam predicted in The Weekly Standard would marry social conservatism with activist government, in order to support the struggling families of the GOP base, have somehow not yet shown up.

So we now have the opportunity to relaunch a second wave of more robust kids-first politics. And as we do, we should ask what lessons the first wave -- the one bookended, roughly, by Babbitt's speech and the Bush S-CHIP veto -- offers for a renewed effort.

First, consensus isn't always helpful. Let's not be afraid of a fight. Rockefeller won unanimity only by paring back his commission's recommendations, particularly by watering down his health-care proposal. A high price was paid to enlist the hardcore social conservatives. But now that they have left the field, we have more flexibility to talk about a real, comprehensive vision for the future of children, one that might not win the support of everyone, but one that can command an enthusiastic majority.

Indeed, if the politics of children is going to have real purchase as politics, as Greenberg foresaw, it has to connect to the conflictual nature of politics. If everyone is for kids, then there is no real kids' politics -- it's not an issue in contested political space. Bush's veto of the S-CHIP bill, while obviously disappointing as policy, at least makes the lines clear: There are politicians who see children as a priority, and there are those who don't. (At the moment, these lines closely follow party lines, but that has not always been the case and will not be in the future.) Real kids-first politics should be unafraid of forcing that choice, with a confidence that in a high-stakes fight between tax cuts and children, children will prevail.

Second, kids-first politics has to be integrated with a broad vision of economic opportunity and the family. All research on education from early childhood through college shows that family income is the single most important variable in a child's success. No single programmatic intervention, whether it is first-rate child care or preschool or reform of elementary schools, compensates for the effects of poverty.

In his recent book, The Sandbox Investment, David Kirp highlights as an alternative to the preschool-focused campaign in the U.S. the British Labour Party's approach of setting a "galvanizing objective" -- the complete elimination of child poverty -- and orienting all policy around that goal. Once such a goal wins broad acceptance, the range of policies that would accompany it fall naturally into place. Under Tony Blair's government, spending on children tripled, and preschool quickly and quietly became nearly universal.

There would be limits to such an approach in the U.S., however. One is that the poverty line is too low: Lifting the income of a family of three to slightly over $17,000 is not going to dramatically change their children's life chances. (Poverty in the U.K. is measured relative to the median income, rather than as an absolute minimum, so the poverty line there for a family of three is more than $23,000 at current exchange rates.) More importantly, as Dalton Conley argued in a recent essay in the Boston Review, "The Geography of Poverty," it isn't income itself that has the biggest impact on kids, but the geography of concentrated poverty and the inability of parents who work long hours and make long commutes to spend enough time with their children. Money is time, and Conley suggests that the best ways to help kids would be by giving their parents higher wages or wage subsidies so they can work fewer hours, by providing paid leave, or by changing the geographic incentives that result in the poorest workers having the longest commutes to work. None of these are alternatives to high-quality child care and early education, but without them, those programs are pushing back against a social and economic trend that hinders their efficacy.

Issues of work and family, and time with one's children, have a political advantage in that they are relevant to the middle class as well as those near poverty, even if the problems of a two-professional couple and a single parent working two low-wage jobs are very different. Like child-support enforcement and preschool, this cluster of issues lends itself to universalist policies that benefit almost everyone. But not all the policies that help kids will be equally universal, and that is a third lesson of kids-first politics. The doctrine that the only programs that can win broad and lasting political support are those that, like Social Security and Medicare, benefit "a huge cross-class constituency," in the words of Harvard's Theda Skocpol, is a severe constraint on policies for kids. The result is often programs that offer a little something to everyone, and not enough to anyone to significantly improve economic security or open new opportunities. Tax credits of a few hundred dollars (which if they are not made refundable, actually disproportionately benefit the well-off) provide too little benefit to families who need them and too much to those who don't.

But as Christopher Howard argues in The Welfare State Nobody Knows, the credo that "programs for the poor are poor programs," lacking public support or funding, is not borne out by recent events, such as the creation or expansion of S-CHIP or the steady and quiet expansion of Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit to support low-income working families. While Bush's veto of the S-CHIP expansion remains hugely unpopular, polls suggest that the Republican argument that the public benefit should not extend to middle-income families resonated with many voters. Freed from the compulsion to offer only universal benefits, no matter how watery, policy-makers will be liberated to design programs that truly lift up the kids who most need help. Such policies need to be coupled with a language of both moral obligation and the economic promise -- not just for the immediate beneficiaries, but for the economy as a whole -- of investing in children. (The companion piece in this issue on Illinois demonstrates how that state is moving toward universal, high-quality pre-K while giving priority to the poor.)

The first wave of kids-first politics led with silver-bullet programs and policies. The assumption was that individual policies that won broad elite support would succeed, and thus lead to a broader and more supportive politics for kids and families. A lesson from the partial success of that experiment is that you can win some policy changes without having much effect on the overall political or economic climate, or national priorities.

The next wave should start not with individual policies that win broad bipartisan consent, but with a comprehensive vision. The vision should be aspirational, not safe. A "galvanizing objective," such as the U.K.'s child-poverty goal, would certainly help. In the American case, perhaps a goal that all children should reach first grade ready to read would help organize all the key initiatives, from Head Start and universal pre-K, to nutrition and health care.

A further advantage of starting from a comprehensive goal such as poverty reduction or school readiness is that it addresses children as members of families. This counters the public anxiety, nurtured by the right, that liberals view public programs as alternatives to the family, and has the additional advantage, of course, that it is exactly the right approach to policy. Kids are not independent economic actors interacting with S-CHIP or Head Start. Family income (higher wages, Earned Income Tax Credit, child support, and programs to help non-custodial parents train and find work), family time (paid leave, expansion of unemployment insurance to cover family leave), family savings and economic security (baby bonds or individual development accounts), and the supports available to families within communities (such as the Harlem Children's Zone initiative) should all be priorities, whether the overall objective is poverty or readiness, in part because they make the other programs go further. Children's advocates should resist worrying that some of the dollars in such programs might support adults or support children only indirectly. It is adults who, indispensably, nurture children.

For all the investment generated by the last wave of kids-first politics, the U.S. social contract still socializes old age and privatizes childhood. Children bear the deepest scars from the "you're on your own" economy and society promoted by the last 30 years of public policy. Putting childhood itself -- and not just a few small programs -- at the center of political debate can serve to turn around that debilitating political assumption, for all of us.

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