Children need more from Congress in 2018

You have to be an optimist to work in the children’s policy field, especially in recent years. So I’m taking Senator Mitch McConnell at his word when he says he’ll look for areas of bipartisan agreement in 2018. And what better place to start than by protecting the well-being of children and youth?

As a nation, we have the capacity to turn from a disappointing 2017 to a more productive 2018. We know more than at any time in history about how to protect children and advance their well-being. That knowledge base is substantial, growing, accessible, and applicable to the major policy issues of the day. If our nation’s leaders on both sides of the aisle genuinely want to find common ground, they can do so around our children. Here are three places to start.

First, pay attention to what science has established about how best to support children’s healthy growth and development:

Children develop best when raised by loving parents and other caregivers who meet their basic physical, material, and emotional needs. Conversely, they suffer when these conditions are not met or are met inconsistently. In recent years, our growing understanding of trauma—how it affects children and how caring, knowledgeable adults can buffer children from its worst effects—has augmented what we know from decades of research on child and youth development.

This knowledge base provides a scientific, nonpartisan, and child-focused lens through which to view some of 2018’s most critical issues. For example, immigration policies that separate parents and children—or create chronic fear of separation—harm children and can have lasting effects on their health, safety, and well-being. Policies that deny health insurance to children and regulations that restrict low-income families’ access to food stamps undermine the ability of low-income parents to meet their children’s basic needs.

Second, take the short leap from bipartisan support for evidence-based policies to bipartisan support for funding evidence-based policies.

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program are great places to start. Both are supported by solid evidence of their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. In the case of CHIP, evidence from multiple disciplines suggests that, when children have health insurance, they are likely to have better health and educational outcomes, and more likely to enjoy economic security as adults. MIECHV rests on an evidence base of nearly 20 home visiting models whose effectiveness is proven through rigorous evaluations using randomized controlled trials.

Third, embrace data as a proven strategy for creating common ground.

Public officials in states and localities across the country are using administrative data to deepen their understanding of the children served by the public health, education, and child welfare systems. Federal surveys provide essential information for policymaking, from parents’ needs and preferences related to child care, to the disproportionately high use of suspensions to discipline African-American students and students with disabilities. Federal data power the Social Genome Model, an innovative forecasting model developed by the Brookings Institution and operated by Child Trends and the Urban Institute to test the long-term effects of changes in public policies. To appreciate the potential for data to bridge partisan divides, look no further than the work of the Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, established through legislation advanced by Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray.

In the 21st century, data are a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure. In the private sector, investment decisions, marketing strategies, and product development all hinge on data. Candidates for public office rely on data to gauge support for their candidacies and ideas, and to get out the vote. Why wouldn’t we similarly value good data in the policy world? One simple, bipartisan step for Congress would be to ensure that federal data collections are well-resourced—starting with the 2020 census, which will provide crucial information on children, youth, and families, and inform a host of other critical public and private sector concerns.

With 30-plus years in the child and youth field, I understand well that basic research, evidence, and data are often not the determining factors in policy decisions. But I have also seen good data, hard evidence, and solid research make a difference—among other things, in early childhood policies, health care, teen pregnancy prevention, and supporting youth in foster care. When Congress searches for bipartisan common ground, Child Trends and our many colleagues in the research community are here to help.