08/01/2012 02:40 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2012

Shortchanging And Failing Our Nation's Children And Our Future

Our nation's federal budget should reflect our nation's priorities. This includes simultaneously addressing short-term national crisis, making longer-term investments in our nation's future that we need to prosper, and living within our means and not leaving the next generation with a burdensome debt. It is a tough balancing act that should reflect the American people's values, including a commitment to ensure the next generation has to opportunity to achieve their full God-given potential.

As Rep. Rosa DeLauro said at the Children's Budget Summit earlier this month:

Every parent sees endless possibilities and great hope in the eyes of a child. As a nation, when we look at today's children, we see tomorrow's leaders -- scientists, teachers, doctors and diplomats. But for our children to thrive and America to stay competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we must support their development, their families and the public policies that work for both.

Unfortunately, many federal policymakers are simply not making children a priority. According to Children's Budget 2012, the federal government now allocates less than eight percent of its budget to our nation's children, who represent one-quarter of our population but all of our future.

Whether acting to slash billions of dollars out of child nutrition, allowing hundreds of millions of dollars through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) to expire that was dedicated to the poorest children in the poorest states, taking actions to declare pizza to be a vegetable in school lunches, or passing legislation to prohibit the Department of Labor from taking action to protect child laborers from injuries and deaths in agricultural settings, Congress is clearly choosing not to make children a priority.

In fact, Congress has chosen to disproportionately cut investments in children, as discretionary spending on children has declined by about $2 billion since 2010. Some might think this is due to the fact that all federal spending is being reduced to combat the federal deficit, but the fact is that children have borne a disproportionate share of the reduction. In fact, the share of federal spending going to kids fell six percent in the past year compared to all the other areas within the federal budget.

An analysis by the Urban Institute, Kids' Share, also finds that defense spending is triple that of spending on children, the federal government spends $7 on senior citizens for every $1 invested in children and that disparity is projected to grow, and interest on the national debt will exceed that for all children's spending in the next few years.

Although President Obama's federal fiscal year 2013 budget proposal would increase support for children by three percent, the "power of the purse" is held by Congress and the budget plan passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May would cut billions of dollars from investments in children.

These recent trends show that many policymakers are willing to sacrifice the needs of children in order to protect the interests of others. We cannot keep making the same negative choices for kids and expect better outcomes.

Meanwhile, Americans are well aware and dismayed by this failure to address the needs of children. By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, voters surveyed believed that the lives of children have become worse over the last ten years and are pessimistic about their future. Americans recognize that nearly one-in-four children lives in poverty, the same fraction are hungry or at risk of hunger, over one million of our nation's students are homeless, and 1.3 million students drop out of school annually.

And while American voters recognize the need to make budget cuts to reduce the federal deficit, they want policymakers to make real choices that reflect their values. They want policymakers to make children a greater priority and, when presented a battery of possible federal budget cuts, voters strongly opposed making major cuts to K-12 education, child nutrition, Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP, which outpolled Medicare), Medicaid, early childhood education, and student loans.

Why the disconnect? Certainly policymakers deserve much of the responsibility and voters should do more to hold them accountable and demand that issues of importance to children are addressed in political campaigns. But, advocates for children must accept our share of the blame. Fortunately, there are things we can and must do.

Know and Share the Facts

First, there is an enormous perception-reality gap that is illustrated by a past column by Washington Post's Dana Milbank when, during consideration of CHIP reauthorization, he wrote, "Lawmakers on both sides know that a piece of legislation stands a much better chance of passage if it's about kids." This comment was perplexing to child advocates who had just witnessed two vetoes of CHIP reauthorization bills by President George W. Bush, and yet, that fiction persists today despite all the countervailing evidence.

As a result, we must do a better job of educating and informing policymakers, the media, and the public about the reality children face. The KIDS COUNT and Child Well-Being Index (CWI) reports are, among a number of great resources, that child advocates must continue to put in front of both federal and state lawmakers.

Creating an Agenda for Change -- Moving From Defense to Offense

Second, we must stop asking and start demanding action from our nation's policymakers on behalf of children. As Republican pollster and messaging guru Frank Luntz told children's advocates:

We are very proud in this country of that phrase, "the American Dream." And yet for so many hardworking Americans, it seems like reaching it just gets further and further away. We should commit ourselves now and demand that the people we elect commit themselves to restoring not just the concept of the American Dream, but the actual ability for Americans to achieve it. The way that we do that is to invest in the next generation -- to invest in the future -- to make certain commitments now that will pay such great dividends 20 or 30 years from now. We complain about parents that have left their kids behind; let's not let another generation slip by. Let's make the difference right now; let's start today.

For example, when nearly one-in-four of our nation's children live in poverty, we should be demanding a national conversation and solutions from policy leaders around what is a national crisis. As advocates, we should demand the enactment of a Child Poverty Target, just as the British have done, as it would require the nation's policymakers to at least develop a plan of action and create a national dialogue on how we should address this problem.

As such, we must "change the game plan" so that child advocates are working positively to improve the well-being of our nation's children. The alternative is for advocates to simply play defense against the barrage of attacks that have been taking place and threaten to overwhelm the children's community. As we have seen, that is a strategy for failure, as children have borne a disproportionate share of the proposed cuts to the federal budget, despite the fact that advocates have tried to play defense and the public specifically wants children's programs protected.

Instead, we must recognize that budgets are about real choices. As Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said at a recent Urban Institute budget forum, child advocates should take the opportunity in the deficit reduction debate to "not just cut the budget across the board" and to "not just look at some fake form of fairness but to actually look at our priorities and where we should be spending more and where we should be spending less."

Indeed, as Rep. DeLauro said:

Currently, only 8 percent of federal spending is dedicated to children, and we have now seen two years in a row of declines in discretionary spending on children's programs. It is time to reverse this trend. The targeted investments and interventions we make now will make a lifetime of difference for the children they reach.

We simply cannot win if we are always playing defense. Child advocates must create a positive policy agenda, such as the creation of a Child Poverty Target, and go on the offensive to demand better outcomes and improvements in child well-being for children and youth from our nation's policymakers.

Building Political Will

Third, we must seek out a new cadre of policymakers to become the next set of "Champions for Children." Unfortunately, in recent years due to a variety of reasons, we have lost or will lose a number of the strongest voices in Congress for children, including Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Christopher Dodd, Blanche Lincoln, and Jeff Bingaman on the Democratic side and Sens. Olympia Snowe, Richard Lugar, Gordon Smith, and Rep. Mike Castle on the Republican side.

As a result, child advocates must identify and cultivate new leaders who understand the issues facing children and will always do the right thing for kids. As Sen. Robert Menendez, author of the "Children's Budget Act" and a "Champion for Children" has said, we need to make children's issues a "no-brainer" for more policymakers so children's issues demand action and not just words and sympathy.

Precisely because children do not vote and do not fund Super PACs, we must take specific action to thank and recognize political leaders when and if they do right by kids and openly challenge them when they do wrong. If we celebrate policymakers when they lead for children, leadership for children will hopefully become the norm.

For example, rather than attacking the Child Tax Credit as some politicians have, low-income families need politicians to protect it, index it, and even consider expanding it to keep more children out of poverty and to provide more support to families with young children who struggle with child care and other expenses so critical in those first few years of life. We will not get there overnight, but if we do not celebrate small victories, we will never win the bigger battles.

Creating New Partnerships and New Opportunities for Action

Fourth, child advocates must also work together to take advantage of new opportunities to create stronger networks and cultivate new voices on behalf of children. Unlike AARP, for example, children's advocates cannot say that we represent 50 million voters. Children cannot join political organizations or movements. However, with the advent of social media and other organizing tools, children's advocates can now reach out to parents, pediatricians, educators, organizations that serve children, and even those in business that provides good and services to children. If Northrup-Grumman, Boeing, Bechtel, the Carlyle Group, and Lockheed Martin can all lobby on behalf of the Department of Defense, the many leaders and organizations who serve children are beginning to do the same for kids.

And, we must identify or create windows of opportunity for action on behalf of children and youth. While some will dismiss or discount the needs of children and others will make the perfect the enemy of the good, we must pursue progress for children, even if incrementally and not perfect, and build upon some important recent successes for children, such as the bipartisan support for passage of the CHIP reauthorization bill in 2009, the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2010, and President Obama's recent action to stop the deportation of DREAMers.

We must also engage children and young adults themselves to speak out and explain how public policy directly impacts their lives, just as the DREAMers have so effectively done. The voices of children in schools, juvenile justice, in need of health care, or who are victims of child abuse and neglect are so powerful, honest, and real. Their voices must be heard more often -- not less.

After the investigation into the facts related to child abuse at Penn State University, Louis Freeh said:

Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children that Sandusky victimized.

After far too much time, their voices were finally heard but the damage has been done.

And, the issue highlights a wider problem, as Michigan columnist Rick Haglund argues in his column "America's Leaders Are Failing America's Children":

It's bigger than Penn State.

At its core, the scandal at Pennsylvania State University is about a former football coach accused of sexually abusing boys and the outrageous actions by top university officials to cover it up.

It's also another troubling example of how our leaders and institutions in business, education, government and other areas of public life are failing us and our kids.

As adults, we are responsible for protecting and nurturing children, and we must be demanding, vigilant, and impatient in that work. Kids can't wait any longer.