Can self-interest align with group interests to create a better world for kids? This was one of the larger questions that guided a recent discussion, Kids and Politics in the Year of Disruption, held at the University of Pennsylvania Law School on February 1.
Co-sponsored by Child’s World America and the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research, the event brought together local Philadelphia researchers, educators, health professionals, and community members interested in promoting children’s well-being under the Trump administration.
Bruce Lesley, guest presenter and president of the nonpartisan children’s advocacy organization First Focus, said we may be an entering an era of underfunding for children’s needs. Congress currently invests just 7.83 percent of the federal dollar in children’s programs, and kids represent a scant 2 percent of all new spending. Southern and Southwestern states, in particular, have failed to invest in education, health care, and other social services for children. “With [Trump’s] promise of tax cuts, how are kids going to fare in this environment?” Lesley asked.
He pointed to the growing racial generation gap as one of the biggest factors affecting disinvestment in kids. Voters have been more likely to support education spending cuts and vote “no” on tax referendums to finance education where the older population was mostly white and the younger population was not.
In other words, white seniors have tended not to feel a sense of responsibility for minority children—an attitude with huge implications for places like Philadelphia, where the poverty rate for black youths is 55 percent higher than that for white youths.
Then there’s the fact that children’s issues are so often out of sight, out of mind. “There’s a false myth that everyone’s going to do right by kids,” Bruce Lesley said. But in focus groups, he found that even parents, grandparents, and teachers with a stake in the well-being of kids did not list children’s issues among their top political priorities. When confronted, they faced their own cognitive dissonance with some reluctance. “People came unglued,” Lesley joked. “We thought they were going to assault our moderator!”
Doing right by kids is not just an intrinsic social good but an economic necessity. The next generation will shoulder burdens like supporting the aging baby-boom population, meaning that the future of Social Security and Medicare relies on the earning power of today’s young people.
Our national security relies on kids, too. But a recent report said that nearly three-quarters of military-age youths were not fit for service, largely owing to lack of education and preventable health problems like obesity.
Creating opportunities for children may require embracing a new narrative—one that focuses on Americans acting to protect the global standing of the United States, not just trying to do the right thing.
Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, pointed out that India’s college graduates have already surpassed the total population of kids in US schools. India “doesn’t need ‘No Child Left Behind,’” Cooper said, whereas, the U.S. “share of the educated workforce is declining for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.”
She noted that education inequality was a concern among polled Republicans as well as Democrats, though Republicans’ rationale tended to involve self-interest rather than social equity. “Republicans were afraid their kids and grandkids would be held back in their economic progress by kids who came to school unprepared,” Cooper said. The question was, “how can your kids succeed, not just other people’s kids?”
Not everyone agreed that embracing selfishness is the way to go. An audience member identifying herself as a philosopher by trade wondered if appeals to individual interests were less effective than appeals on behalf of the community.
But when group interests diverge—as seen in the racial generation gap—the very definition of community is challenged. Donna Cooper warned of the echo chambers created by organizations with their own ideologies and agendas. “What does the Radnor League of Women Voters think?” she asked. “What do Radnor librarians think?” In short, who exactly is “the community?”
And the perfect example of individual interests battling community needs is happening right in Philadelphia: an education equity crisis strained by charter schools that exhibit varying degrees of success. Cooper says that most charter schools don’t enroll the same density of poor children that public schools support. And Philadelphia’s best teachers flock to the suburbs, where they receive better pay and more resources. Who can blame them for leaving Philadelphia school kids in the lurch to seek more equitable wages?
“Labor force changes revolve around status and remuneration,” Cooper said. “We don’t need a charter school experiment to tell us that money is a persuasive factor.”
Bringing cash into a conversation about kids feels distasteful, particularly in communities that are blanching at four years of Trump. But a bipartisan approach to investing in children seems to require a repackaging of the issues so they translate across party lines. Changing the way we talk about children’s issues—and collapsing the difference between the “right” thing and the economically advantageous thing—may dissolve boundaries between groups who mistakenly believe their agendas are incompatible.
Bruce Lesley believes Americans can come together for the kids’ sake. “We’re at a point where Americans are so cynical and angry,” he said. “But if we get children’s issues in front of their faces, they’re like, “Yes. We should be doing this.’”