How to Keep Our Policy Discussion Focused on Kids | Opinion

Last month, many American families saw a bump in their bank statements as the new child tax credit, enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan, was directly deposited into their accounts. The deposits were carefully labeled "child CTC," making this one of the few social service programs that reminds Americans every month of the link between federal policy and kids. Our research suggests that Americans need this reminder, and that more consistently associating overarching policy with kids—when there's a clear link between the reform and children's wellbeing—is a powerful step toward ensuring we prioritize younger and future generations in politics.

As the Biden administration and Congress move from the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal to the admittedly tougher-to-pass "human infrastructure" bill, we must keep children in the conversation. Rather than limit talk of children to daycare and education (two big pieces of the yet-written plan), policy makers would do right to educate both the public and their colleagues on the very tangible effects of strong housing policy, health care and climate reforms on kids. The more often Americans make the connection between kids and the wide range of issues that affect them, the likelier it is they'll be included in policy conversations—and thus benefit from those policies' adoptions.

As social scientists and child advocates, we've discovered that most Americans have a hard time conceiving of policy in child-related terms, even when it clearly impacts their own kids and future generations. Think of some of the big social issues that most Americans, whatever their political affiliation, should care about: reduction of income inequalities, better health care, job access and eliminating structural racism. When addressing these issues—none of which discriminate by age and all of which impact younger generations—it's rare to hear legislators or politicians, even those intent on fixing the problems, describe their effects on those who can't yet vote. Sure, they may overly use tropes such as "think of the children." But unless addressing obviously kid-centered systems of care, like education and childcare, it's rare to hear anecdotes or hard data to show the effects of, say, a parent's low wages on children's wellbeing or the way that having inadequate health care affects an adult's ability to tend to a kid's needs.

The fact is there's a gap between what we say we value—"the kids!"—and how we actually address children's welfare through public policy. And the proof is in the fallout. The United States has worse child health outcomes than most other wealthy nations, despite greater per capita spending on health care. Shockingly, the U.S. ranks 37 out of 41 rich countries in UNICEF's 2017 report card measuring progress in meeting child-related sustainable development goals. As of 2019, according to Save the Children's Global Child Report (which assessed child welfare based on eight factors, including school attendance, malnutrition and teen pregnancy), we came well behind most of Europe. Think of the children.

We're failing our kids. And in large measure, it's because—at a political level—we don't connect our policy priorities with what's good for them. When making laws and deciding on how to allocate our public resources, we barely think of them at all.

Unless the public is reminded of how impactful many policy decisions are on children's lives, it's easier for legislators to skirt addressing them and focus instead on things their deeply polarized constituents complain about online. Both legislators and the public have consistently failed to connect essential dots. In our research, including surveys and focus groups, we found that while the majority of Americans support policies that in practice impact children—universal health care, more flexible work schedules, paid family leave, universal basic income, et cetera—they don't consider these as children's issues or child-focused policies. In fact, these participants almost never mentioned consideration of children when weighing decisions; rather they largely focused on the economy and its effects on adults. Voters consider their kids in day-to-day matters, sure, but unless weighing obviously child-related issues, like school and daycare, they omit them from political calculations.

A child uses a swingset
A child uses a swingset. Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Our collective mindset needs to change if we're to adopt a wide range of reforms that both help the country as a whole and ensure we leave it to the next and future generations not just intact but thriving. Advocates and politicians must refocus matters by talking about overarching social policies in the same breath as children's issues. One potentially promising strategy for doing this that we're exploring in upcoming research is by highlighting proposed policies' effects on parents and making connections between them and children to demonstrate that policies affecting them similarly affect the ones they care for at home. Even writing this down feels so incredibly obvious—and yet we're not doing it in the public square.

Here's an example of what we're talking about. Instead of arguing that universal health care benefits all Americans, make statements like the following: Health care costs put parents under tremendous strain. Many must forgo essential treatment to cover costs of basic care for their kids. This puts a strain on parents' caregiving capacity. Guaranteeing everyone high-quality care and supporting parents' wellbeing translates to responsive care for children. It also provides them with their own separate health care too.

The more we use this kind of framing for big issues—environment, wages, policing, job access, infrastructure, et cetera—the likelier we are to not only connect the dots between policy and children but to also actually pass these reforms instead of just talking about them. And the more reforms supporting kids' wellbeing are implemented, the more we start to see them in our policy discussions and bring them into our decision making. Whether you have a job with strong benefits affects your child; whether you have the option of, when necessary, calling in sick affects your child; whether your health care coverage suffices to get you better quicker affects your kid. Let's not pretend it doesn't.

That said, if no apparent connection exists between a policy and kids—like anti-bribery laws—then don't try to connect it. Politicians already suffer from inauthenticity, so let's not go there. Anyone remember when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in arguing against a COVID-19 relief measure, implored us to stop borrowing from future generations? It landed about as softly as an elephant on concrete. Connect the issues where the connection is clear and apparent, and keep doing it.

Anyone paying attention knows we're nowhere near where we need to be for all of our country's kids to have a real shot at a long, prosperous life. Making sure we connect kids to the wide range of issues that affect them is part of how we can fix the status quo.

Nat Kendall-Taylor is CEO of the FrameWorks Institute.

David Alexander is founder and president of Leading for Kids.

They are collaborating on a project called Building a New Narrative About Our Kids.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.