11/04/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Children and American Leadership: What Would the Roosevelts Do?

It's time to restore American leadership, and the place to start is by investing in our future, our children. Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt give us examples of the leadership that kids need once again today.

Over a century ago, in 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt looked out on a nation where, according to Andrew Yarrow, "child mortality rates were high, millions of children were employed, school attendance was low, poverty was widespread, and couannantless children dependent on the community languished in almshouses and orphanages." As a result, President Roosevelt convened the nation's first White House Conference on Children focused on addressing the harmful effects of institutionalizing dependent and neglected children.

In follow-up to the Commission's report, Roosevelt sent a Special Message to Congress that said:

Each of our children represents either a potential addition to the productive capacity and the enlightened citizenship of the nation, or, if allowed to suffer from neglect, a potential addition to the destructive forces of the community.

To address these problems, President Roosevelt called for the establishment of the first ever Children's Bureau to "investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children and child life, and shall especially investigate the questions of infant mortality, the birth rate, physical degeneracy, orphanage, juvenile delinquency and juvenile courts, desertion and illegitimacy, dangerous occupations, accidents and diseases of children of the working classes, employment..., and such other facts as have a bearing upon the health, efficiency, character, and training of children."

Just 23 years later, TR's distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president and embarked on a course to help lift the country out of the Great Depression and combat the negative consequences of that economic crisis on the American people, including its children. With FDR's "New Deal," dramatic progress was made in his first term, as the economy experienced one of the fastest periods of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth in history.

However, at his second inauguration in 1937, FDR challenged the nation not to become complacent and "turn our back on the road that lies ahead."

In that "One Third of a Nation" speech, he asked the nation, "Shall we call this the promised land? Or, she we continue on our way? For 'each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.'" He challenged Americans benefitting from the economic recovery to overcome the threats of comfort, opportunism, and timidity and to not accept the status quo for those still left behind.

These words ring true in America today, 76 years later. According to Roosevelt: is the challenge to our democracy: in this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens -- a substantial part of its whole population -- who at this very moment are denied the greatest part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

And, in the speech's most repeated line, he said:

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill nourished.

FDR said these words "not in despair" but "in hope" that Americans would see and understand injustice and continue to rise to the challenges still facing the nation.

He recognized that, with success, continued progress can be "more difficult." He said, "Dulled conscience, irresponsibility, and ruthless self-interest already reappear. Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster. Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose."

We face nearly identical challenges today. While the banks and high-rollers that caused the most recent "Great Recession" were bailed out by the federal government and are once again thriving, and Wall Street is experiencing record highs, those that did not cause the recession and bore its wrath, including children, are still struggling.

In fact, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education, the 1,168,354 homeless students enrolled by pre-schools and K-12 schools in the 2011-2012 school year was the highest number on record, and a 10 percent increase over the previous school year. The number of homeless children in public schools has increased 72 percent since the beginning of the recession.

In addition, more than 8.5 million children live in households where one or more children was food insecure and an astounding 22 percent of our nation's children still live in poverty. This is the highest rate for children in 20 years and the ramifications to our children are lasting and deeply damaging, particularly to children's health, nutrition, education, housing, safety, and future earnings.

Rather than ensuring the recovery extended to families with children, federal policymakers have undertaken budget reductions that, often in the name of the future of children, paradoxically and disproportionately, cut support and services for children. For example, the 2011 budget deal established tight discretionary caps, which disproportionately squeezed funding for children. And, those reductions were followed last year by the adoption of "sequestration," which imposed across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending, including key education, early childhood, nutrition, and housing programs for children this year.

As Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal said in his article "The Young and the Powerless":

Generational fairness demands that Washington stabilize the long-term debt to avoid saddling today's young people with crushing interest costs. But the way policymakers achieve balance has profound generational implications too -- and the sequester would continue a pattern in which the costs of fiscal adjustment are excessively imposed on the young.

In its report entitled Kids' Share, the Urban Institute found that federal investments in children dropped $28 billion from 2011 to 2012, a 7 percent decline. And, while the children's share of the federal budget has declined by 23 percent over the last 50 years, the Urban Institute estimates that that the share of federal spending dedicated to children will decline by another 20 percent in the next decade unless federal policymakers make children a greater priority and focus.

On this negative trend for children, Anna Bernasek of Newsweek wrote:

That has implications for long-term economic growth. Cutting back on the young is like eating the seed corn: satisfying a momentary need but leaving no way to grow a prosperous future...[And] in a hypercompetitive global economy, nations investing today in the well-being and education of the young are writing the success stories of tomorrow.

If the nation's budget reflects our national priorities, we desperately need our nation's leaders to set forth a new covenant that is focused on children, their well-being, and our nation's future. And it must begin with a basic understanding that you can't expect returns on investments you don't make, and that it's time we started investing in our children again.

According to Brownstein, in his column entitled "How Both Parties Ignore What Their Voters Want":

A generationally equitable, growth-promoting deal would expand investment in children, impose reasonable limits on defense, raise taxes to acknowledge that government will cost more in a society with twice as many seniors, and constrain entitlements so that the gray wave doesn't swamp everything else. Neither party, given the demands inside its coalition, can produce such a balanced solution alone.

So, what would the Roosevelt presidents do? If nothing else, it is clear they would have urged the nation to reject the status quo and to move forward with attention and focus on the needs of children.

As FDR said in 1935:

It must not for a moment be forgotten that the core of any social plan must be the child... we cannot too strongly recommend that the Federal Government again recognize its obligation to participate in a Nation-wide program saving the children from the forces of attrition and decay which the depression turned upon them above all others.

Children are still struggling with high poverty, hunger, insecure housing, child abuse, inadequate early childhood services, and cuts to education that are leading millions of children down a pathway toward a dark and uncertain future. It is time we address their needs. Our future depends on it.