Put Every Child Ahead

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In recent weeks, children and youth advocates from across the country have joined forces with anti-poverty activists to oppose President Bush’s proposed budget cuts and spending caps.

If enacted, Bush’s budget plan would cripple the country’s capacity to protect and prepare young people both today and in the generations that follow. (See “Bush’s New Deal.”) We must all find ways to bring others into this debate in order to reset the priorities of the national agenda.

Rather than being defensive, we should start by asking if there is a compelling reason not to put children ahead of tax cuts – especially if those tax cuts disproportionately benefit an affluent minority and put community programs, student loans and family supports at risk. The public doesn’t think so.

In recent national and 10-city polls commissioned by the Forum for Youth Investment, a solid majority of adults said that services that help young people develop necessary educational and life skills are important, need to remain available and should be expanded. In the 10 major cities polled, an overwhelming majority said these needs are an even higher priority than such politically popular programs and policies as senior centers or tax breaks for new businesses. (See “After-school.”)

The results show that adults place a high priority on after-school, job training, service-learning, recreation, arts and health care programs, with nearly half of respondents saying these programs are a very high priority. (In the cities, support ranged from 62 to 78 percent.) Nationally, support was surprisingly strong for tax increases on high-income taxpayers and for community “trust funds” to pay for services for young people: Sixty-six percent favored the tax increases and 78 percent favored the trust funds. We should not be surprised by how many Americans said that young people are a priority and that public investments need to be improved, and even expanded, to meet the needs of children and families. When asked, the public is overwhelmingly opposed to putting its young people at the bottom of the priority list.

But it is not clear whose job it is to move them to the top, or how to turn public concern into public outrage as children slip to the bottom.

This country has learned little from the wisdom of its original inhabitants. Many American Indian elders guide their decisions by reflecting on the impact their choices will have on the next nine generations. The rest of us, unfortunately, continue to have difficulty focusing on the children now in our midst. It is time to make decisions with at least the next generation in mind and to actually deliver on the rhetorical commitments we have made to our children.

As we heed the president’s challenge to be “citizens, not spectators . . . building communities of service and a nation of character,” I urge us to understand that this means more than the narrow definitions of volunteering and values. (One place to start is the Coalition on Human Needs at www.chn.org.)

We need to engage in dialogue to create shared visions and engage all voices. We will not get the priorities we want if any of us is unwilling to enter the debate over our national priorities. We cannot be of service to families and neighborhoods we fear or simply misunderstand. We cannot put all children ahead if we believe, deep in our hearts, that some are simply not worth the trouble. We cannot be of service to youth if we do not believe they can be of service to us and to themselves.

We need to engage young people as we make these difficult choices. How would we make the case for cutting basic services like health insurance, reducing basic supports like community programs, and limiting vital opportunities like college attendance, if the judges were not adult budget makers, but young people? Would we be as bold in our projections and justifications if the casualties not only had faces, but voices, facts and questions?

This country has no choice but to work its way out of debt and doubt. Our children can help us if we let them. We, as a country, do not have the strength to make decisions affecting them without their wisdom, oversight and leadership.