We Love Accountability. But Who’s Ensuring the Well-being of America’s Kids?

The United States is afflicted by an inputs-outputs complex, complicated by our penchant for competition.  Stuck with conventional metrics, we stint on the resources, expect stellar outcomes, and remain oblivious to the disconnect. Care, education, and health read as consumption, not investment, in our national accounting; production of the next generation has become a luxury item.  Our children, and future, have been relegated to the bottom of the nation’s priority list.

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The repercussions of our inaction could not be more serious.  In this essay, originally published at Medium, Wendy Lazarus, director, and Laurie Lipper, chief consultant, of the Kids Impact Initiative, lay out the four crucial elements of  a holistic accountability mechanism for kids. As battles over the allocation of public dollars heat up, the authors write, it is vital that their needs be protected.

 

By Wendy Lazarus and Laurie Lipper

It’s a fact: As a nation, we measure and hold ourselves accountable when we care about something. We hear almost daily about the Gross Domestic Product’s ups and downs, and we look to the GDP to keep us on track toward a productive economy. Policymakers use the jobs report each month to size up our economy’s outlook and decide if and when a stimulus may be needed. The interest rates and lending rates let consumers prepare their finances and make buying decisions. If something is important enough to us, we find a way to measure where we stand and use that both to make progress toward an important goal — and to take corrective action if we backslide.

So why don’t we measure and hold ourselves accountable for how well children in the United States are faring?

One of the reasons is that we don’t have a widely-accepted mechanism to track progress for kids and take corrective action when needed. Not coincidentally, services and programs that benefit kids and families are losing ground, and all of us are paying the price of kids’ declining health and educational readiness.

Take this, for instance: according to the Pentagon, more than 70 percent of young adults in the U.S. would not qualify for military service because they do not meet the minimum educational standards or health requirements. The failures of our education system, the national obesity epidemic, drug use and other factors have far-reaching consequences for our young people. And yet we have no widely-used, comprehensive way to keep track of these effects in order to counter them.

Today, children face some of the biggest threats in decades to their chances to grow up healthy, well-educated, and prepared for a productive future. With so many kids’ programs now in jeopardy due to federal actions and inaction, our top priority must be to protect these vital investments. But while we do, we must also address this lack of accountability, which has led to neglecting kids’ needs for far too long.

Unless we wake up and take action, this troubling situation will get worse. Right now, we are on a track to reduce even further our investments in kids’ education, health and well-being. From 2010 to 2016, according to the Urban Institute, the children’s share of the federal budget decreased from 10.7 to 9.8% and is projected to decline by nearly a quarter to 7.5% by 2027. (In 2016, the federal budget allocated to children $377 billion of the $3.9 trillion in federal outlays.)

Even more alarming, children’s programs are projected to get just one cent of every dollar of the projected increase in federal spending over the next decade.  And if certain provisions of the proposed tax legislation are signed into law, the situation for kids will grow even worse, affecting the next generation of teachers, soldiers, business leaders, health care and other workers, and voters that our nation depends upon.

So, why is this happening? Why don’t we have ways we hold ourselves accountable for kids’ well-being?

Kids don’t vote. They don’t pay lobbyists. And while certain children’s issues in the public sphere used to be nonpartisan, in these highly polarized times with fierce competition by interest groups for resources, investments in kids have suffered.

In addition, the very structure of the federal budget disadvantages programs for kids. Many programs like disability benefits, health care for seniors, and interest on the national debt are “locked in” expenditures, as they should be; by contrast, funds for children’s nutrition, child care, education, and many health programs are “discretionary.” This means that whenever decision-makers look to cut budgets at any level of government, resources for kids’ programs are disproportionately vulnerable and are usually negatively impacted.

That’s why it is time to develop a holistic mechanism to measure, monitor and enforce ways that ensure our nation is investing fully and effectively in the outcomes we want for our children. While we measure certain aspects of child well-being such as graduation rates or health insurance coverage, we lack a comprehensive approach to ensure we are achieving our goals for kids across the board. As battles over the allocation of public dollars heat up, it is vital that the needs of children are protected in a structured, sustained way.

We have a wealth of examples of successful accountability strategies — including ways to mark and maintain progress — that have become embedded in public life. Over the past 100 years, for example, we have created and refined measures for what constitutes a clean environment and what constitutes a safe car; and those have positively changed our expectations and results. Air quality in many parts of the country is cleaner, and seat belts are ubiquitous. We have made similar progress gaining accessibility for people with disabilities, through the Americans with Disabilities Act, and in lifting the elderly out of poverty. These stand as positive examples of achieving social goals by measuring our progress and holding ourselves accountable to them.

Surely, we can achieve comparable progress for the nation’s children. As we press forward to create a holistic accountability mechanism for kids, we can start by identifying four crucial elements:

  • We must agree on a measure of kids’ well-being that we, as a society, believe matters and accurately reflects their conditions;
  • We need a nonpartisan, independent and lasting structure inside or outside of government that tracks progress, reports it to the public, and drives needed corrective action;
  • There must be an engaged citizenry that shows its concern by consistently voting for elected officials and supporting decisions that are good for kids; and
  • There must be incentives for progress for our leaders and institutions and also consequences for failure to achieve shared goals for kids.

We use a holistic accountability approach for other complex challenges, including the economy, industry, and the environment.  These are all important priorities. So are our children. Now, we need to measure up for them.

 

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2 comments to We Love Accountability. But Who’s Ensuring the Well-being of America’s Kids?

  • Patricia Sullivan

    I hear you, but America has shown little concern for children and families as it tries to decide if education is a public benefit or a means for profit. The children suffering the most are the poor and children of color, two groups that conservatives have decided were undeserving of support. We need to find new collaborations with partners willing to invest in early childhood education as we continue to push for more funding at the federal and state level. But we should never forget how many children we are already leaving way behind as we keep fighting for change.

    • Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more, and I make that case, with scathing critique, in my book, Squandering America’s Future: Why ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy, and Our Children. I was so excited to find Wendy Lazarus and Laurie Lipper’s piece, and to learn of their terrific work on the Kids Impact Initiative, which calls for the collaboration you speak of.

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