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In This Season of Giving, How Are Children Faring?

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In December, the majority of Americans spend a great deal of time and energy preparing for a holiday that celebrates the birth of a child. Given this focus, this seems like an excellent time of year to ask how America's children are faring. I'm afraid that three recent trends suggest a somewhat dispiriting answer: children living in poverty are on the rise; childcare subsidies for working families are down; and parents report that they are cutting back on household spending in the face of economic struggles.

A recent briefing from the Council on Contemporary Families reports that 653 counties in the U.S. saw a significant increase in the number of children age 5-17 living in poverty, while only 8 experienced a significant decrease. The CCF report notes that it is a common misperception that poverty in the United State does not constitute significant deprivation. Instead, report author, Philip C. Cohen, finds that more than one in five children were "food insecure" in the last year, meaning that at some point in the past year, they were "unable to acquire adequate food."

This is not the only area in which we are failing our nation's children. Today, 80 percent of children live in households that rely on mother's paid work. Although fathers are participating more in housework and childcare, their increased participation cannot replace a full-time caregiver. According to a report by the National Women's Law Center, childcare subsidies have declined in the last year and families now spend more of their total income on childcare than they did back in 2001. Congress did not approve an increase to childcare subsidies in the 2011 budget, despite rising childcare costs. When families cannot afford decent childcare, they are often forced to rely on multiple caregivers. Ironically, the men and women whose families would benefit most from their continued employment are the ones who are least able to afford stable childcare that will allow them to remain at work.

Finally, the House Republicans rejected the Senate approved tax cut plan on Tuesday -- a decision that will increase taxes by $1,000 annually for approximately 160 million Americans. American families can hardly afford this increase right now, as most families, even those whose parents have not lost jobs, continue to feel the effects of the 2007-2009 recession. According to an October report from the Institute for Women's Policy Report, 80 percent of mothers reported that they had "cut back on household spending" in the past year. And just over 40 percent of mothers reported not buying something that a child needed due to economic concerns.

In this time of holiday spirit, is it possible for us to forge a new path? One that recognizes that we are all invested in our children and that we need to create policies that support this investment? I would give my vote to the candidate who supports universal childcare this election season. One of the reasons that working-class mothers and fathers have a harder time staying employed is the lack of affordable and accessible childcare. Working-class parents are more likely to rely on a patchwork of caregivers, sometimes using up to three to four childcare providers in a single week. When a patchwork system fails, there are more stringent consequences for working-class moms and dads who are more likely to face penalties and even job loss for missed work due to childcare emergencies. Middle-class families would also benefit greatly from a national paid childcare system, as it would improve the overall quality of childcare and provide access to quality care that is lacking in many areas.

We also need to see a real commitment to the reduction of poverty and inequality in our society. Increasing the minimum wage would help to reduce poverty in this country, as many of those children living in poverty are among the "working poor," those whose parents have found employment, but whose wages cannot keep them out of poverty. When adjusted for inflation, two-thirds of American families are now making less than they did thirty years ago. Only families in the upper third have experienced real gains. Passing the tax cut plan, and putting $1,000 back into the pockets of 160 million Americans would be a good start, but it must be supported by increased taxes at the top.

Achieving these goals will require attention to the needs of working- and middle-class Americans, of men and women, of people of all races. And it will require a new political commitment to the children of America. But when we consider how our children are faring this holiday season, it appears to be the only way forward.