There are 74 million children and young people across the country who couldn’t vote in this election, despite having the most at stake. That includes my children, who got up early on Election Day to feed voters waiting in long polling lines and stayed up well past their bedtime watching election returns. “Dad, did they call it yet?” was their constant refrain until Biden was officially declared the winner that weekend. Like their peers across the country, my children couldn’t vote in this election, but they were deeply invested in the outcome.
The well-being of children has rarely received the kind of political focus reserved for priorities such as national security, health care or stock market growth. Meanwhile, according to 2019 Census Bureau data released in September, children are the poorest demographic group in the country. The situation is bleaker for Black and brown children, who are at least 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than their White friends. Since May, 2.5 million more children have fallen into poverty.
In the face of the covid-19 pandemic, challenges facing young people have become more daunting in every area. Students and their families have had to navigate seemingly insurmountable barriers, such as unequal broadband access and school district budget cuts rivaling those made during the Great Recession. The child welfare system ground nearly to a halt, leaving administrators holding their breath in expectation of the type of increase in foster care cases that accompanied prior economic declines.
As a nation, we must do better.
In less than a month, President-elect Biden will take the oath of office. His campaign slogan promised he would “Build Back Better.” A better country would measure its success by the flourishing of the largest, most diverse generation: our children.
To change the tide, incoming leaders must shift from old frames for our policy dialogue to child-centered priorities that create equitable conditions for young people to thrive. When the Agriculture Department reports that 19.1 percent of Hispanic children live in food-insecure homes, it should be treated as a national security concern. The health-care debate should begin with the inequity that Indigenous children are nearly 2.5 times less likely to have health insurance. With responsibility for an economic recovery, our new leaders must advance a tax policy that prioritizes Black babies born into poverty over billionaire business owners.
Shifting priorities will be tough. So, here is some low-hanging fruit to help jump-start Biden’s “better.”
Family food security: Right now, between 7 million and 13 million children in the U.S. live in households that do not have enough to eat. The Biden administration should support a permanent increase in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits so that families can more easily afford the food their children need for healthy development and growth. And to ensure our children will continue to have their nutrition needs met even as we begin to recover from this pandemic, the administration should support a policy of free school meals for all children.
Children’s health: More than 700,000 children lost health insurance during the first three years of the Trump administration. The Biden administration must address the alarming rate at which children are losing coverage by expanding outreach and simplifying eligibility and enrollment to help get young people covered. The administration should also rescind Medicaid waivers that create barriers to care and harmful policies that have led to eligible, immigrant children failing to access the health care they need because their families fear government retribution.
Support for unhoused youth: The new administration should push for robust rental assistance and emergency assistance for unhoused children and families and ensure a uniform, nationwide moratorium on evictions that lasts for the duration of this crisis. The administration should also increase flexible funding for the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth program to allow schools to better support unhoused youth by providing access to wraparound services.
These actions represent early steps in a long journey to centering children in our consciousness.
The Biden administration has a unique opportunity to lift the voices and hopes of America’s children. All 74 million, including my young sons, are waiting and watching to see if they will deliver.