The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America’s children are suffering. Why are they still an afterthought in this election?

Students arrive for in-person classes outside a school on Sept. 29 in New York.
Students arrive for in-person classes outside a school on Sept. 29 in New York. (John Minchillo/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

American children are out of school, out of food and increasingly getting chucked off their health insurance. Yet somehow, they seem to be an afterthought in this election.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the number of children without health coverage had been rising. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of uninsured kids rose by 726,000, according to recently released Census Bureau data. The tally has probably risen further this year, too, given job losses during the pandemic (and, with them, employer-provided health insurance). A new report from Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families estimates that an additional 300,000 children have become uninsured in 2020.

If correct, this would mean that since President Trump took office, more than 1 million children have lost their health insurance — bringing the total number of uninsured kids nationwide to about 4.7 million.

Without health coverage, children are less likely to get critical screenings (such as hearing and vision tests), vaccines and other preventive care, or simply adequate treatment whenever they do get sick — with covid-19 or otherwise. Losing these early investments in children’s health can have serious, and expensive, long-term consequences as these kids grow up.

What’s more, children are bearing a disproportionate share of the financial hardship caused by the pandemic, as an online tracker from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities makes clear. Households with kids report higher rates of food insecurity, housing instability and other metrics of financial insecurity.

Follow Catherine Rampell's opinionsFollow

For example, according to U.S. Agriculture Department data for 2019, roughly 1 percent of adults with children reported that their kids were sometimes or often not eating enough at some point within a given 30-day period; the Census Bureau asked a similar question at the end of September, and 9 to 14 percent (the share varies by how it is measured) reported this problem within the previous seven days.

Again, the known, long-term developmental benefits derived from delivering adequate nutrition to children signal that society is likely to pay for today’s child hunger for years to come.

The same goes for schooling.

Most children began this school year at least partly, if not entirely, online, with children of color much more likely to be learning virtually, according to an analysis from Chalkbeat and the Associated Press. Beyond the inconvenience and frustration for parents, who must supervise their children’s schooling or otherwise secure alternative child care, this also raises the risk of intellectual and developmental delays among children. The scarring could linger long after the pandemic recedes.

Oddly, the scale of these problems has vastly dwarfed news coverage — election-related or otherwise — in recent months. Many of these numbers have received scant, if any, airtime.

Perhaps pundits, politicians and even voters have simply accepted these multiple childhood-related crises as inevitable fallout from the pandemic. But the deteriorating well-being of American children is the result of policy choices we have made as a country — or that government has made on our behalf — both before and after the coronavirus outbreak.

There was no immutable law of the universe, after all, that required the Trump administration to bully states into making it harder for children (and their parents) to remain enrolled in public health insurance. No one forced the administration to frighten immigrant parents away from enrolling their eligible, U.S.-citizen children in Medicaid or other public services. (This is probably the main reason the uninsured rate for Hispanic children has spiked in recent years, clocking in at 9.2 percent in 2019.)

No one required cities to reopen bars and restaurants before classrooms. No one made officials abandon child-care facilities and schools, which are crying out for financial assistance so they can operate safely and effectively. No one forced lawmakers to end the $600 weekly federal supplement to unemployment benefits that was helping parents put food on the table and keep a roof over their children’s heads.

Voters have choices, and we can make different ones.

We could, for instance, elect a president who favors a different set of priorities. You might not know it from the headlines, but Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has endorsed several major policies — including an expansion of Section 8 housing subsidies and the child tax credit — that would collectively cut child poverty by more than half, according to an analysis released last week by researchers at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy. Democratic lawmakers have already broadly endorsed versions of Biden’s tax policies, suggesting a more wholesale changeover of power next month might also result in different, better outcomes for our kids.

Children, wronged as they’ve been, don’t have the power to vote the bums out. We do.

Sign up to receive Catherine Rampell's columns by email as soon as they're published

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Trump says his terrific health-care plan is finally here. That would be news to his health advisers.

Paul Waldman: The Trump administration’s cruelty knows no limits. Here’s the latest.

Paul Waldman: How this crisis could help us get to health-care reform

Kate Cohen: America is failing everyone now. That’s what gives me hope for change.

Daniel Willingham: We can help shape how our children remember the pandemic — and foster their future happiness

Loading...