Nearly two years ago, more than a dozen welfare experts trooped to Capitol Hill to testify about challenges to American children and their families. A pair of U.S. senators who heard them out also commissioned a follow-up report asking for an assessment of children’s’ well-being. It’s just been published and begins with the words: “We can do better.”
The United States earns a C-minus in child welfare overall, according to America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S. It’s authored by First Focus, a bipartisan federal policy advocacy group; and Save the Children, a U.S.-based global child welfare organization.
“We are grading the nation as a whole, so it’s society, business, families, communities,” emphasized First Focus President Bruce Lesley, not a grade of any particular state, lawmaker or administration. The two organizations tapped a board of outside advisors to help with the analysis and grading.
The report scores five separate categories of child welfare. Economic security and permanency as well as stability both earned a D, while health and safety ranked highest at a C-plus.
Overall, about one of every five people under the age of 18 lived in poverty in 2011, according to the report; for African Americans, it’s almost two of five. The report uses the federal poverty level, an annual salary for a family of four of a maximum $22,811.
The United States gets an F for deporting more than 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children in the first half of 2011, the worst measure in the report. The best mark is an A-minus, for health insurance now covering more than 90 percent of minors.
But “the report shows we as a nation need to do much more if we’re going to have a nation that’s strong and children who are leading better lives,” said former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), commissioned the report after the 2010 congressional hearings.
Since then, some things have improved, said Dodd. Test scores are up slightly, the dropout rate is down slightly, he said, and there’s the health insurance rise, which he attributed in part to the federal Affordable Care Act.
But he warned that state child welfare programs, like early education, are under fire as states’ budgets continue to suffer from the past few years of recession.
For example, some 4.5 percent of children eligible for Early Head Start — the federally-funded development program for children under the age of three in low-income families — are enrolled, said Mark Shriver, senior vice president of U.S. Programs at Save the Children. Head Start, for those aged three to five, serves 29 percent of eligible children. The federal government funds both, but requires a local match.
Enrollment rates are roughly similar for under-fives in state-funded early learning programs, the report says, though statistics divide cohorts somewhat differently.
The new report claims that if federal funding stays stagnant, early learning programs will serve the fewest number of children since 1988.
“We should not be talking about whether to gut those programs,” said Shriver, “but we should be talking about making additional investments."
Back in 2010, the report of the State of the American Child hearings recommended permanent, inflation-linked funding for Head Start.
That’s not happened. But the report’s authors do praise the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. That’s a competitive grant program that in 2011 made its first cash awards to states that increase learning access for the very youngest.
But the grades still aren’t good enough, opined Casey: “Whether it’s a C-minus or a C or even a B, until we get to an A, I think we’re going to be asking whether or not we are a faithful friend to children.”
Photo from America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S.