Introduction

Throughout America, children lack the support and conditions—health care, economic security, education, adequate nutrition and safety—that they require to grow and flourish. In the 21st century, every child in America should have the freedom to reach their full potential.

As Americans, it is our solemn obligation to help families ensure every child has the support they need, yet we have failed them time and again. In our political system, the best interests of children are often invoked, but rarely provided for. Over time, corrupt forces have perverted the basic notion of freedom, while creating a government that works for corporate interests rather than our children’s best interests. Seeking a different framework, in his 2013 inaugural address, President Barack Obama spoke about our commitment to one another, saying:

We do not believe that in this country freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us at any time may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm. The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

President Obama’s reminder that freedom is not “reserved for the lucky” but rather is a “commitment[s] we make to each other” was not a new one. His words harkened back to a time when our public leaders understood that living freely required the affirmative work of government and was predicated upon not just the economic well-being of those at the top, but the prosperity and self-determination of all people. In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated this expansive vision of freedom in his “Four Freedoms” speech, in which he described his vision for a post-war world based on freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his or her own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Roosevelt’s four freedoms are no less relevant in today’s international order than they were as the world sought to respond to the totalitarian horrors of the 1930s and 1940s.

President Roosevelt’s vision of freedom is equally relevant as we consider our obligations to one another, especially to children. President Roosevelt recognized that children have specific needs and requirements that compel a policy response that is appropriate to those needs, saying, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” Preparing our children for the future, giving them the freedom to develop into the people they aspire to be, requires a renewed and deep commitment on the part of our country and our policymakers. It requires policies and investments that are commensurate with our commitment.  

The promise of opportunity and freedom for America’s children must be an urgent societal and governmental priority. As former Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania wrote, 

Only government, when all else fails, can safeguard the vulnerable and powerless. When it renegs [sic] on that obligation, freedom becomes a hollow word. A hard-working person unable to find work and support his or her family is not free. A person for whom sickness means financial ruin, with no health insurance to soften the blow, is not free. A malnourished child, an uneducated child, a child trapped in foster care—these children are not free. And without a few breaks along the way from government, such children in most cases will never be truly free. 

In the 21st century, it is time that we revive the true meaning of freedom for all people, and especially for our children to give them a fair shot to achieve the future they deserve. To that end, this document sets forth a detailed plan to secure the blessings of freedom for the children of today and tomorrow. This plan identifies five basic freedoms that our society must guarantee to our Nation’s children: 

Freedom to Be Healthy: Every child in America should have quality, affordable health care. This proposal recommends automatic Medicaid eligibility at birth through age 18.

Freedom to Be Economically Secure: Every child in America should have the opportunity for economic security, and to earn a living wage when they reach adulthood. This proposal recommends expanding the Child Tax Credit and allowing parents to claim it monthly; and it proposes the creation of children’s saving accounts, seeded annually with $500 in government contributions, that children can later use in pursuit of a post-secondary education, home ownership or a business enterprise.

Freedom to Learn: Every family in America should have access to quality, affordable child care and early learning programs. This proposal recommends an additional annual investment of $7 billion to expand affordable child care and early learning programs; an additional investment of $18 billion annually to ensure that Head Start can cover all eligible 3–5 year old children; and a substantial expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to help working families cover the cost of child care.

Freedom from Hunger: No child in America should go to bed hungry or worried about their next meal. This proposal recommends enhancing automatic certification of more children for school meal programs, expanding universal school lunch and breakfast, and increasing retroactive reimbursement of school meals for eligible children who were not initially certified for school meals. 

Freedom to be Safe from Harm: Every state in the Nation should have the resources necessary to strengthen families, prevent child abuse and neglect, and investigate and prosecute crimes against children. This proposal recommends the following investments: $250 million per year in community-based child abuse prevention; $250 million per year for child protective services; and $250 million per year to state Attorney General offices to prioritize investigation and prosecution of crimes against children. 

While the policies outlined here, working in conjunction with one another, would have a substantial and positive impact on the well-being of children, no proposal or document can reasonably cover all of the determinants of child well-being, nor propose policies related to each of them. While this plan focuses on policies that are relatively specific to children themselves, policies related to the well-being and economic security of families are also critically important investments in children. Safe and affordable housing, wage policies such as the minimum wage, as well as paid parental leave, among many others, are directly important for children and for their families.

The last two years have been some of the worst for children in decades, due to actions taken by the Trump Administration that harm children substantially. Despite low unemployment and overall economic growth, children are being left out and left behind. According to the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure, which takes into account many of the government programs designed to assist low-income families and individuals, childhood poverty worsened in 2017 for the first time since the Great Recession, leaving one out of every six children in difficult circumstances and with significant barriers to success. Almost half of young children in the United States lived in poverty or near poverty, with infants and toddlers at greatest risk.

Poverty harms children both immediately and for a lifetime. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) concluded in their 2019 seminal Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty that poverty itself, especially when it occurs in early childhood or is persistent over time, is damaging to children in ways that last a lifetime. NASEM further estimates that the results of this poverty, in terms of lost adult productivity, increased health costs and increased expenses of crime, cost the United States between $800 billion and $1.1 trillion annually.

Children’s programs are already woefully underfunded, and each year this Administration proposes budgets that would make the situation dramatically worse. If the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 budget had been implemented, 44 programs serving children would have been eliminated and many others would have been crippled. Furthermore, recent trends in federal spending on children, as well as projections into the future, show declining federal investments in child well-being. Several studies have demonstrated the declining share of the federal budget dedicated to child well-being, which is now estimated to be between 7.21 percent  and 9.2 percent.

Measured differently, as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), the same study found similar patterns, with federal spending on children as a percentage of GDP peaking at 2.5 percent of GDP in 2010, declining to 1.9 percent in 2018, and then projected to further decline to 1.7 percent in 2029. This decline is worsened by our Nation’s historically low support for children and families when compared with other industrialized countries. As noted in a study published in the journal Academic Pediatrics, "The takeaway is that the United States underinvests in its children and their families and in so doing this leads to high child poverty and poor health and educational outcomes."

In fact, the United States ranks nearly dead last compared to other developed nations in terms of percent of GDP invested in early childhood education and care. In 2015, countries such as Iceland, France and Bulgaria spent one percent or more of GDP, while the United States spent less than a half percent. In a world where countries compete for talent and jobs, our country’s lack of investment in our future returns poorer outcomes than so many of our allies and competitors.

Younger children are more likely to live in poverty and to suffer lifelong effects as a result. Therefore, actions to reduce poverty early in life are both crucially important and also sadly lacking in the United States. Quality early care and education, which have been shown to both lift children out of poverty and improve educational and life outcomes, are not affordable for most American families. For families with two or more preschool-age children, child care is the biggest annual household expense across most of the country—more than rent or mortgage payments. Child care costs more than college at a public university in 28 states, and is unaffordable for 7 out of 10 American families. Due to years of underinvestment, just one in six children eligible for federal child care assistance receives it.

Children’s safety, especially early in life, is not being adequately addressed. An estimated one in seven children experienced child abuse or neglect in the last year, and children with disabilities are at increased risk. Seventeen hundred children died from abuse or neglect in 2017, with infants being by far the most at risk. Ninety percent of abuse or neglect is committed by parents or caretakers, especially when untreated substance use disorder is present. The opioid crisis and related abuse of other drugs and alcohol have resulted in thousands of children either entering the foster care system or being cared for by other family members. The number of infants entering the foster care system grew by nearly 10,000 each year between 2011 and 2017.

There is a strong consensus in the country that quality education is essential to a child’s ability to learn and be successful. However, education by itself in the absence of financial security and opportunity cannot fill the gap that disparities bring. Nick Hanauer, founder of the public policy incubator Civic Ventures, recently wrote, 

[L]ike many rich Americans, I used to think educational investment could heal the country’s ills—but I was wrong….We should do everything we can to improve our public schools. But our education system cannot compensate for the ways our economic system is failing Americans….American workers are struggling in large part because they are underpaid—and they are underpaid because 40 years of trickle-down policies have rigged the economy in favor of wealthy people like me.

Recently, the Administration proposed changes to the definition of poverty that will negatively affect eligibility for health, insurance, child care, nutrition and other federal programs. Over time, hundreds of thousands of children will lose food and health care. This is exactly the opposite approach our country should be taking. It is precisely these programs that help lift millions of children and families out of poverty, and allow them to look forward to the future with hope.

Actions such as the Administration’s proposed changes to the “public charge” rules undercut children’s health and well-being in particularly cruel ways. Parents will fear that legally enrolling their children in nutrition, health and other programs will be used against them someday when they are applying for legal permanent residency or entry into the United States. As a result, many families are already dis-enrolling even when the rules do not apply to them. Looking in the near future, a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Pediatrics) estimates that up to 1.9 million children with specific medical needs will lose health and nutrition benefits, which will result in more illness, more hunger and less success for our children.

Over the past two decades, wealthy Americans and profitable corporations have disproportionately benefited from tax cuts and fiscal policy. Half of American households earn less than $63,000 a year, yet since 2000, we have spent over $1.2 trillion on tax cuts to the top 1 percent. Since 1960, the effective tax rate for America's 400 richest families has gone from 56 percent to 23 percent. The 2017 Republican tax bill is just the latest example of how spending priorities are completely upside-down, prioritizing corporate giveaways and tax cuts for the wealthy while ignoring priorities like investing in children and building the middle class. Driving growth of debt and deficit through tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations makes it impossible to invest in our schools, to address child poverty and food insecurity, to tackle maternal mortality, to invest in our roads and bridges, to provide affordable and quality child care and to ensure Americans truly see the benefits from their labor. 

There are ample reasons to conclude that the lives of American children are becoming harder every day. Poverty is up. Health care for childrena bipartisan priority for decadesis faltering. In 2018, children lost ground on health insurance for the first time in a decade, and more than 800,000 children no longer received Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as of January 2019. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that 11.8 million children lived in food insecure households in 2018. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which safeguards the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age five, suffered its largest single drop in enrollment ever in 2018. If the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is repealed or struck down, more than seventeen million children in the United States who have a preexisting condition will be imperiled, and those with serious illnesses or disabilities will once again be at risk of quickly exhausting their annual and lifetime coverage limits.

All of these losses are occurring while the economy is allegedly “strong,” but “strong” for whom? The Administration is advancing the household income of the wealthiest on the backs of our children, and in so doing, it is causing irreparable harm to children, families, communities and our Nation. This abject failure to invest in and protect our children is a colossal moral failing that damages our economic future and our national security.

Children growing up in rural America are more likely to grow up in poverty and rely on federal supports, and thus are more likely to benefit from increased investments and interventions to improve their well-being. According to the USDA,  in 2017 more than one in four rural children under the age of six lived in poverty. Rural children as a whole (age 0–18) were 29 percent more likely than urban children to live in poverty. Forty-three counties in the United States had child poverty rates of 50 percent or higher, 40 of which were rural (93 percent). Eighty-five percent of counties experiencing persistent poverty—defined as 20 percent or more of the population living in poverty for at least 30 years—were rural. Elevated rates of poverty in rural regions are seen in all major race/ethnic group categories. 

Families living in rural areas more commonly face reduced access to employment opportunities, limited public transportation, and inadequate educational, health care and child care options.,  Rural children are less likely to have health insurance, and infant mortality is substantially higher. Utilization of programs such as WIC and SNAP are higher in rural parts of the country. USDA also noted in 2019 that “concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, and employment dislocations,” and that the more time a child spends in poverty or living in a high-poverty area, the more likely they are to be poor as an adult.

Federal health insurance programs play an especially important role in supporting rural children. Families and children residing in rural areas are more likely to be covered by Medicaid than those residing in metropolitan areas. This is not surprising given that rural areas are characterized by lower rates of workforce participation, lower incomes and higher rates of disability. In 2014–2015, 45 percent of children living in rural areas and small towns received health insurance through Medicaid or CHIP, while a significantly smaller percentage, 38 percent, of children living in metropolitan areas did so. This pattern holds true in nearly all states. Similarly, in states that participate in Medicaid expansion under the ACA, small towns and rural areas saw significant benefits. The most dramatic decreases in the uninsured rate were in rural areas of expansion states, where the rate fell from 35 percent to 16 percent, compared to a drop from 38 percent to 32 percent in rural areas of non-expansion states.

The crisis of freedom facing our Nation’s children is not new or an accident. Over decades, far-right politicians have sought to redefine our Nation’s basic obligations to our children in pursuit of a corporate agenda. This corporate agenda has robbed resources from our schools and health care system in order to give obscene tax cuts to the super-rich and biggest corporations, as noted above—nearly $1.2 trillion to the top 1 percent in less than 20 years. The foundation of this corporate agenda is a political strategy that seeks to pit Americans against one another by race, religion and national origin. Instead of focusing on all of our Nation’s children, this diabolical strategy has sought to convince Americans that the success of their children is dependent on someone else’s child not having opportunities. While far-right politicians attempt to pit Americans against one another, the unprecedented giveaways to those at the very top conform to a fraudulent “trickle down” economic model that has diminished the lives of millions of children. All of our Nation’s children deserve freedom and the opportunity that comes with being truly free. In the 21st century, the guarantee of freedom must be more than a goal; it must be a matter of national policy.

Our country’s neglect of our children is not a new phenomenon. For decades, we have underinvested in our children. However, the current Administration has moved beyond neglect and is instead pursuing a radical corporate agenda that is accelerating the decline in our children’s well-being. Whether it is the Administration’s push to gut Medicaid, disqualify children from food assistance, cage children at the border who are seeking a new life for themselves, or push the definition of poverty to reduce the number of individuals eligible for means-tested programs, this Administration’s agenda prevents children from being truly free. These policies are an insult to the idea of freedom upon which our Nation was founded.

A children’s strategy that reflects the value of our Nation’s youngest citizens must move first away from harm, beyond neglect, to a proactive model which allocates resources to where they are most needed and which puts in place the conditions under which children can be truly free.