With an eye to the upcoming election, researchers and policy leaders have identified many critical services and programs for children. Both presidential candidates have publicly discussed the importance of early childhood programs and strong schools, for example. However, relatively little attention has been given to the larger social forces that affect children’s development.
Here are a handful of critical issues that aren’t on the to-do lists of most children’s advocates. But these 5 issues will profoundly affect children’s lives and outlooks as they grow into adulthood. They are therefore just as critical as “traditional” concerns about children.
- Climate change. Children are the ones who will have to live in a world of rising seas, storms, and dislocation that have already begun throughout our beleaguered planet. Our children’s futures will be greatly affected by our ability to develop alternate sources of renewable energy, increase energy efficiency, and move toward a sustainable lifestyle. And the threats are not just at home in the United States, because the difficulties posed by climate change, such as crop failure, extreme storms, and severe drought, are raising the risks of war in other regions, such as the Middle East.
- Unplanned pregnancy. We have made substantial gains toward the goal of reducing teen pregnancy; but unplanned pregnancy remains far too common among couples in their teens and early 20s. When couples are not committed to having and raising children together (much less committed to one another), the challenges faced by the children they bear are far greater. Since many highly effective, long-lasting methods of contraception are available, it is possible to greatly reduce unintended pregnancy among young adults and teens. Being born to older parents in a committed relationship who want to have a family doesn’t magically solve children’s problems, but it sure does reduce the economic and social challenges faced by children and families. And delaying childbearing also allows the parents to obtain the education and work experience they need to get a good job.
- The federal budget. Our current generation of leaders has adopted a kick-the-can-down-the-road approach to important budget issues. Of course, this just passes on the costs of our inaction to future generations. Take Social Security, for example. The trust fund is going dry, despite numerous recommendations for solving the shortfall, Why do we cap Social Security contributions for high-income workers, who stop contributing when their earnings reach $118,500? Limiting the deduction for home mortgages is another move that would reduce the deficit, without reducing home ownership. In other words, there are many options; we should choose those that protect and support the elderly, but that do not leave huge deficits to our children and grandchildren.
- Use of data and evidence. We expect medical care to be based on solid research, but we need to extend this standard to all programs that serve children, youth, and families. Too many services and programs fail to produce results, and some actually do harm. Even programs that are on target in terms of their goals, approach, and outcomes are often implemented with such poor quality and consistency that they do not achieve their potential. If we continue to build a stronger evidence base about child and youth-serving programs, and use those data to monitor program outcomes (not just service delivery), it will substantially improve the positive development of children and youth. Child Trends’ What Works database is designed to contribute to the information we have about program effectiveness.
- The need for positive role models. Adults spend a lot of time lecturing and instructing children and youth. They seem to forget that children and youth learn from example as much or more than from direct teaching. Children observe the diet and exercise habits of parents; they also see and hear the loss of civility and collaboration among policymakers. Adults need to set positive examples for the next generation. It is good to support character education, but it isn’t enough. Adults also need to provide positive role models for the next generation.
In other words, while it’s important to provide specific services to children and youth, we should also recognize that children’s well-being is inextricably and powerfully linked to the larger social issues affecting our nation and the world.
Kristin Anderson Moore, Senior Scholar