Leave No Child (or Family) Behind

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Advocates for broader supports for children, youth and families have a common focal point: President George Bush's tax cut proposal. Hailed by allies as an appropriate response to ward off an economic slump by giving the wealthy some of their money back, the proposal has met considerable resistance from advocates, economists and even the wealthy.

"Even the Fat Cats Don't Buy It" was the headline of the Los Angeles Times article last month that reported that George Soros, Bill Gates, and more than 100 other wealthy people responded to Bush's commitment to drop the estate tax as a move that would "enrich the heirs of millionaires and billionaires, while hurting families who struggle to make ends meet." John J. DiIulio, Bush's advisor on charitable giving, confirms the cautions raised by studies from the Independent Sector, the Council on Foundations and the Urban Institute that charitable giving might decline by as much as one-third if the tax were ended. That would leave nonprofits to compete for an even smaller pie.

"Even the Public Doesn't Buy It" could have been the lead-in to the recent CNN/USA/Gallup poll showing that while a majority of Americans (56 percent) favor the cuts, few feel the cuts would make much difference to them personally, and many are concerned that cuts would cause a deficit (53 percent), take money from Social Security (57 percent), or mostly benefit the rich (75 percent). Fight Crime-Invest in Kids took polling a step farther, finding that more than two-thirds of the public believe that reducing child abuse, educating disadvantaged students, and providing access to after-school and school readiness programs are more important than cutting taxes.

"Only the rich will benefit" is the rallying call from organizations such as the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support and the National Council of La Raza. They are backed by studies from the Urban Institute and Brookings that show that, without creating a refundable child care tax credit available for low- and moderate-income families that don't pay federal income taxes, the top 40 percent of families with children will receive 81 percent of the benefit of the Bush child credit, while the poorest 20 percent would receive less than 1 percent.

Perhaps most sobering is the fact that even the U.S. General Accounting Office is asking the Bush administration to slow down and deliberate on a decision that, however implemented, could recreate deficits that would send into shock many bottom-of-the-totem pole programs for children, youth and families - programs which have been nurtured back to health over the past decade.

Dorothy Stoneman, founder and President of YouthBuild USA, brought the concerns home with a recent letter to advocates and friends: "I woke up at 3 AM this morning feeling that driving conviction in my mind, heart, and belly that if we don't mobilize massive opposition to these tax cuts immediately, we can kiss good-bye all long-range plans to eliminate or even significantly diminish poverty."

CDF's Marian Wright Edelman echoed Stoneman's concerns in a speech at the recent National School Age Childcare Association conference: She lamented that "we've never had a sustained lobby" for children and youth, and committed CDF to push for a federal "leave no child behind" bill that would bring home the fact that "children don't come in pieces."

This is the real challenge. With luck, the administration will adopt a more "prudent" decision-making approach that will give advocates time to caucus on the matter. When that time comes, youth advocates will have to forcefully rally around child care tax credit policies. Child and family advocates will have to argue to protect youth programming. Everyone has to think about strengthening basic family supports. Leaving no child behind means creating an omnibus bill that addresses the unique but overlapping needs of children, youth, and families - including those headed by young people themselves. It's time to think big and act bigger.

Karen Pittman is chairperson of Youth Today's board of directors and executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment. Contact: karen@iyfus.org.