Leading for Kids
Making Kids a Priority on the National Policy Agenda

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The Data Doesn’t Lie: We Need to Prioritize Our Kids

In June, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the 30th edition of their KIDS COUNT® Data Book—a state-by-state analysis of how kids are faring in America. I am always intrigued by the findings in this report, and grateful to the Casey Foundation for such a complex undertaking. Specifically, the Data Book explores at 16 areas of well-being for our nation’s 47 million children, tracked across four domains—health, education, family and community, and economic well-being—and summarizes national trends and data points for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

 The good news? Since 1990, the Casey Foundation reports measurable progress in 11 of the 16 areas of child well-being. The nation’s teen birth rate is the lowest it has ever been. More kids than ever before have health insurance—as a pediatrician, seeing this news is heartening. And the percentage of teens not in school and not working hovers at 7 percent—three percentage points lower than it was in 2010.

But the report also shows that across the United States, kids—one fourth of our nation’s population—continue to face challenges that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Nationally, 13.3 million children, or one in six kids, live in poverty. Sixty-four percent of fourth graders are not proficient in reading and 67 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math—figures that have only slightly decreased or remained unchanged since 2009. Despite medical advances and state-of-the-art technology, the number of babies born at low-birth weight has increased each of the past three years and now matches the all-time high of 8.3 percent of all live births. Systemic racial and ethnic inequities remain prevalent. Disparities in geography exist that affect kids’ overall well-being and ability to thrive, with children in states where the population growth is the highest—primarily in the South and West—faring worse than those in the North and Northeast.  

 As an international comparison, UNICEF publishes a State of the World’s Children report annually that looks at children in relation to one of the United Nation’s sustainable development goals, such as education (2018) and poverty (2017). In 2013, the report focused on child well-being, and using the general guidelines outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), five dimensions were considered: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviors and risks, and housing and environment. UNICEF ranked 29 countries of high- and middle-income economics, placing The Netherlands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden at the top of the list, with Greece, the United States, Lithuania, Latvia, and Romania taking the bottom five places. The report notes that the bottom four rankings are occupied by three of the poorest countries in the survey (Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania), and by one of the economically richest, the United States.

Back to the Casey Foundation report. What does all this mean? Some states—New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa—are doing well caring for kids. And some markers of well-being, i.e., kids covered by health insurance—are much improved. But I believe that when we take a critical look at how our country’s kids are doing, we need to look collectively, at all kids across all states. Despite pockets of success, when we look at how we are doing as a country caring for children and youth in America, the hard truth is: overall, our kids are not okay.

 There are many things we, as a country, can do to change this. The Casey Foundation highlights several calls to action, including the importance of counting all kids in the 2020 census, especially those from dense urban areas, rural expanses, and tribal communities; and in turn, using this data to inform good policy. Currently, we have policies that affect kids, which vary by state, or during implementation and execution, or by funding, but we do not have any national or federal policies targeted specifically for children. The establishment of federal policies will ensure all children the same rights and the same benefits, at the same funding levels, across all states. In addition, I propose the creation of positions at the federal and state levels, but who are government-independent; these commissioners can weigh in on and have oversight of these policies. Unlike any formal role that exists in our country today, their dedicated responsibility and focus can be the prioritization of the health and well-being of kids.

 The concept of children’s ombudspersons or children’s commissioners is not a new one—at least not in Australia, New Zealand, Canada (each of the ten provinces has a commissioner), and Europe, where the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children includes 34 countries within the Council of Europe and exists to facilitate the promotion and protection of the rights of children, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). While the United States is the only United Nations member state that has not ratified the UNCRC, this doesn’t need to stop us from promoting the well-being of our kids. One of the ways we can help to ensure that all kids grow up thriving is to have dedicated officials whose sole responsibility is to view policies through a child-focused lens and to ensure that all children’s interests—and voices—are reflected when policies are made and upheld when policies are carried out.

Currently, there are 19 states who have offices of independent child-serving advocates or ombudspersons, 4 states with general jurisdiction ombudspersons, including children’s services, and 12 states with some kind of ombudsperson, often internal; for the most part, these offices focus on child protection, juvenile justice, and foster care. In contrast, the children’s commissioners in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand take on very different roles. For example, in Australia, the children’s commissioner is tasked with promoting the rights, well-being and development of children and young people, ensuring their voices are heard at the national level. The commissioner engages in public discourse and awareness of issues affecting children, conducts research and education programs, and—most remarkably—asks for input from children and youth, on the decisions, policies, and programs that affect them. Similarly, in England, the children’s commissioner acts as the “eyes and ears” of children, conducts research, and, independent of government and parliament, advocates on their behalf to ensure policy decisions reflect their best interests. In countries with children’s commissioners, children fare better overall (I will write more about this in a future blog post).

For now, the establishment of children’s commissioners would be tangible evidence of the priority our society claims to place on children in our country. In doing so, how might such a role change the narrative in future KIDS COUNT® Data Books—and more importantly, the lives of kids in America? I believe it would make a monumental difference—one I would love to see. 

I encourage you to read the entire report, and share your thoughts with us!