Revive White House Conferences on Children

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President Biden is rightly targeting immediate crises, but a longer-term priority must be the well-being and future of our children. His Administration’s child policy thus far has focused on tax credits. While these would help children in poverty and alleviate the nation’s childcare crisis, we need a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach to guide policy to improve the state of the nation’s children. A good way to start would be to revive the White House conferences on children convened every decade between 1909 and 1971.

Shortly after the gavel came down at Washington’s Willard Hotel on January 26, 1909, closing the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, President Theodore Roosevelt called for legislation setting “a high standard of child protection by the national government.” Congress affirmed the government’s responsibility to “investigate and report upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of children.”

Can we say the same today about public responsibility for kids and the need for legislation? In addition to tax credits, Biden has called for paid family leave and universal preschool. These are worthy goals, but America’s 74 million children have many other pressing needs. There are many experts and advocates for children, but are their combined voices being heard in Washington?

The seven decennial conferences drew enormous attention to child welfare and proposed many beneficial policies that were enacted. These conferences were not mere window dressing. The first took aim at the institutionalization of children. The second strengthened standards for child labor. Child health was addressed at the third. The fourth sought to end malnutrition and racial bias. The “mid-century” conference, which brought delegates from 30 nations, focused on healthy personality and social development. Six million Americans and 210 working groups helped plan the 1960 gathering, where pediatricians described how prior conferences’ recommendations had led to sharply reduced infant and child mortality. The last, held during the Vietnam War, prioritized health, day care, early childhood education, and eliminating “the racism which cripples all children.” Sounds a lot like today’s priorities.

It’s been 50 years.

Do we care less about children? Are we so cynical that we think little can be accomplished in Washington?

As far as the first question, no one would say so, but demography gives a partial answer: The number of babies born last year may be fewer than the number in 1946. Fewer voters are parents. And the ranks of Americans 65 and over will surpass those under 18 in little more than a decade.

Although children’s lives have much improved over the years, data illustrate enormous problems that exist. About 13 million children live in poverty, nearly 700,000 are victims of abuse each year (and at least 1,700 are killed), 24 million live with a single parent and 4 million live with neither parent, nearly half of young children are not in preschool, 670,000 teen-agers are not in high school and 2 ½ million don’t graduate on time, nearly one-third of teen-agers are obese,  4.4 million kids lack health insurance, up to 10 million have diagnosed mental-health disorders (ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety, and depression), 1.5 million have been homeless, and the suicide rate among 10-to-24-year-olds shot up by 57 percent in a decade.

Yet, only 7.5 percent of the federal budget is spent on children, and the current trajectory shows ever-decreasing shares of the budget going for kids. The $8 billion for the largely invisible Children’s Bureau is what the Air Force spends on four B-2 stealth bombers. Additional appropriations provide aid for child care, foster care, Head Start, and other initiatives, but the amounts are tiny slivers of the $4.8 trillion federal budget. States and localities spend billions on K-12 education, but the quality of schools remains highly inequitable. Little is spent on vocational education, and public spending on higher education has drifted downward.

Conferences won’t solve the problems facing our children, but they can bring expertise to bear, raise public awareness, and — with the kind of political will that was behind the 20th century conferences — spur government action. Although there isn’t much common ground these days, children’s well-being should be a bipartisan (really, nonpartisan) priority.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Andrew L. Yarrow is a former New York Times reporter, historian, and author who has written on the history of U.S. child policy.

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