January 24, 2014 – With the holiday season behind us, the 2014 election season will soon take center stage. Unfortunately the future of children, youth and families in Michigan often gets lost during campaign hullabaloo, despite the fact that it is consistently a top priority for voters. Now is our chance to change that.
Of course Michigan’s Children will be closely following this year’s state budget process that began with clues in the Governor’s State of the State last week and will continue with his budget release in early February. Of course we will be working with national partners like First Focus to intervene in strategic federal budget and policy conversations. We will be keeping you posted about all of that, as we always do. But my thoughts today are focused on the core of our democracy – how we chose the people who represent us and who we expect to make the best public policy decisions on our behalf. Voters like yourselves around the state and around the country are deeply concerned about the challenges children, youth, their families and their communities face today and their prospects for the future. We know that the majority of voters believe that children’s lives are worse today than they were 10 years ago, and that our own children will be more challenged in building their lives, families and communities than we were. Here’s the good news: voters want to help. Even voters who believe government does too much want the federal budget to prioritize investments in children. The dilemma is that people don’t always cast their votes with this in mind.
As in each election, decisions made by those we elect this November to local, state and federal offices will have direct and immediate consequences for our communities. As the recent Kids Count in Michigan Databook again revealed, increasing shares of children, youth and families in Michigan are becoming even more vulnerable as poverty continues to rise and child abuse and neglect reaches additional victims. To change this trajectory, Michigan needs leaders who will champion policy and program decisions proven to work. Consider…
- The federal Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lift five million children out of poverty every year, but Congress will decide whether those defenses shelter more children or fewer from poverty’s reach. One-fifth of children live in homes affected by hunger, and with nearly half of Food Stamps funds going to children, Congress will decide which children get the food they need and which go hungry. Efforts over the last several years by the Michigan Legislature to cut supports for low wage workers like the state EITC are counter-productive. Michigan’s subsidized child care system needs major changes to make staying on the job the best family choice for parents struggling to meet children’s needs. Workforce development resources need to be much better targeted toward the most challenged families and include better supports for education and training. Members of our Legislature and the Governor will determine if we will chart a more family-friendly course in the coming years.
- Our schools continue to struggle, in large part because a parent’s income rather than a child’s ability determines whether kids begin school ready to learn, have great schools to attend, and can continue with the extended learning supports that are so critical to building life and career success. A federal-state pre-school partnership could help to level the playing field, but whether that proposal advances or falters will be up to the men and women we send to Washington. Michigan has taken huge steps in improving pre-school access, but has not advanced programming for infants, toddlers and their families, failing to close literacy and other gaps when they first appear – as early as nine months. And, our elected officials have failed to prioritize programs that improve the educational success of the most challenged young people and adults.
- The most vulnerable children and families – those at risk of becoming or already involved in Child Protective Servies, foster care and juvenile justice systems continue to share with us that we’ve done little to prevent their suffering, even though we know so much about the factors that contribute to parents’ inability to appropriately care for their children. We know so much about the relationship between involvement in juvenile crime and the failure of systems to help young people succeed. We’ve seen some leadership from members of our Congressional Delegation on these issues, and hope that they continue to press for more investment and better services. We have also seen a disinvestment in prevention by our State Legislators and need to expect more from them.
If citizens remain on the sidelines, these are not the issues that will dominate the airwaves this election year. You have to be clear about what you want to hear from the candidates. When a candidate gives a speech in your community, go, and ask about child poverty, about child maltreatment, about educational success. When a campaign calls you for a contribution, a yard sign, or to attend a rally, tell them to first send the candidate’s position papers on topics to improve the lives of children, youth and families in your community. When the local TV anchor signs up to moderate a candidate debate, send an email urging her to ask real questions about preventing child abuse and neglect, or improving the educational outcomes of all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, where they live or how much their parents earn.
Don’t ever doubt that in a democracy, our voices are still enough to make a real difference.
Portions of this blog were published as an opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press on 1/22/14 and offered to other news outlets around the state.