Transcend Politics: Keep Children and Families at the Center

01/18/2017 06:01 pm ET

We opened this week with millions of Americans honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and we will close the week with the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. A dramatically different political, policy and power environment emerges with the incoming Trump Administration, one-party control of Congress, and increased Republican majorities at the state levels. It is an opportunity, as Dr. King’s legacy reminds us, to grapple with some very real issues – issues that place the American dream out of reach for millions of families across our country.

All Americans want to see our country’s leadership put their well-being at the center of the agenda, above political grandstanding. The well-being of children and their families is not a partisan issue. Ensuring opportunity can pass from one generation to the next is at the heart of the aspirational American dream. Leaders from both parties have outlined policies to help families break free from the trap of poverty. And Americans from all walks of life are eager to see the rhetoric translate into concrete action. In an Ascend at the Aspen Institute commissioned bipartisan survey from Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group (November 2016), 86 percent of Americans, across all demographics and political leanings, expressed strong support for programs that invest in children and their families together to fight poverty. More tellingly, 74 percent favor those programs even if that approach would increase their own taxes.

When we get down to the business of governing next week, how do we answer families’ persistent call to keep them front and center where they belong?

The President-Elect’s Administration has indicated that infrastructure, health care tax reform, family leave and child care will be priorities. These are big issues that will take up much of Congress's time and will have profound impact on families. But we must not lose sight of other efforts to further the economic security and well-being of families across the United States. With that in mind and on behalf of the families whose voices guide our work, we offer these recommendations to policymakers who want to be responsive to families:

Build on progress made expanding coverage, improving quality and reducing costs of health care. Every family turns to the health care system at some point in their lives, for themselves and for their loved ones. Our youngest children, young parents, families with low incomes, and others who are vulnerable need a system that works for them too. In undertaking reforms, Congress and the new Administration should:

  • Close the last gap in health care coverage to reach the remaining 9.2 percent not currently covered.
  • Expand and improve home visiting and food and nutrition services for women, infants, and children to reach all eligible children and families.
  • Ensure child wellness visits are designed to support a whole family or two-generation model of care by considering children, mothers, and fathers.
  • Address financing for mental health and early child development services in pediatricians’ offices and health care clinics.

Prioritize human capital when we invest in infrastructure. People can only get back to work and stay there if they have job training that matches the local market, are prepared to advance to higher-skilled and higher paying jobs, and have high quality affordable care, so their children are safe, happy, and learning. That means:

  • Recognize the care economy as part of the critical national infrastructure from professional development and appropriate compensation to investments in facilities for early learning and child care, K-12 and post-secondary education.
  • Incorporate the availability and location of child care programs in the context of other community and economic development goals.
  • Conduct long-term analysis and ROI when assessing community child and elder care assets and needs, including the maintenance of facilities and ongoing professional development and pay for early childhood workers.

Ensure affordable, high-quality child care and early learning. Millions of families rely on child care daily. And the quality of that care matters. In 33 states and the District of Columbia, infant care costs more than in-state public university tuition. Working families should not have to let go of quality to afford care. New research from Nobel laureate Jim Heckman has demonstrated a 13 percent return on investment to society with high-quality, birth-to-five early education. The need for quality child care cuts across all demographics, from working parents to young parents going to school to build a better life for themselves and their families. As the new Administration crafts child care policies, delivering high-quality care where families live, work, and study is vital. To make that commitment real:

  • Expand access to quality child care and early learning through reliable and respected efforts such as the Preschool Development Grant Program, the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, and the Early Learning Challenge Fund.
  • Increase investments in innovations and brain science to improve early learning and development outcomes for infants and toddlers and support positive parenting.
  • Ensure Head Start and child care quality standards and best practices are met and rewarded so more families get the services they need to help their children get a good start in life.
  • Locate high-quality child care services convenient to college campuses for students who are parenting.
  • Ensure quality child care for all working families with low incomes who have children under three, and in particular, for the early childhood workforce who are the critical backbone of the child care system.
  • Catalyze new financing models and incentivize performance- based, public-private partnerships to overcome the financing challenges of improving local child care systems.

Strengthen family leave policies and engage the private sector in programs and policies that support jobs, productivity, and strong families and communities.

  • Expand access to paid family and medical leave for the first six months of a child's life for both parents.
  • Reward businesses of all sizes that support their workforce as employees and parents.
  • Incent innovation at all levels of decision making –in public policy, services, and programs as well as in the private sector—that responds to the realities of all families and their lives.

Keeping families firmly at the center of policy debates answers the challenge Dr. King put before us, echoed in the clarion call of the 2016 elections. Putting families at the center will lift up the entire country over time by reducing health care costs, increasing school achievement, producing a more educated workforce, and expanding the earning potential of all working families. That should be the priority for all our leaders.

On January 24 - 25, 2017, Ascend at the Aspen Institute will host the Aspen Forum on Children and Families with leaders from across the country to lift up a set of solid ideas for investing in the economic stability and educational success of children and families.

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