Why it’s past time to make children’s health a national priority

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This fall, President Biden hosted the first White House summit in decades focused on ending hunger in America, with his administration announcing $8 billion in public- and private-sector commitments toward that goal.

The last such summit was in 1969 and convened by President Richard M. Nixon. It influenced food policy with an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income families buy healthy food, and the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which offers assistance to mothers.

With Biden hoping to have a major impact on food policy in coming years, this post provides a road map for how the administration and Congress can address the issue of child health. It was written by Robert Boyd, chief executive of the School-Based Health Alliance, a nonprofit organization that promotes and supports school-based health centers, and Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

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By Robert Boyd and Pedro A. Noguera

The Biden-Harris administration this fall made the bold commitment to try to end child hunger in the United States by the end of the decade. “I know we can do this,” President Biden declared at a White House summit on the issue, the first since 1969. Now, with the midterm elections past us, it’s time for the administration to take steps toward acting on this pledge.

To make greater progress in addressing the needs of its children, the administration must create the proposed White House Office on Children and Youth. Doing so would send a clear message that we prioritize our children as much as issues such as national security, immigration and international trade, that consistently receive more attention; after all, by investing in our children we are literally investing in America’s future.

Biden hosts conference on hunger, announces $8 billion of commitments

Too often, that phrase is little more than a quaint slogan. It should be a source of national shame that America has some of the highest child poverty among wealthy nations.

Today, 12 million children live in poverty, according to Facts About Childhood Hunger in America; 12.5 percent households with children were food insecure in 2021, and that rate is double for single female households with children, Hunger in America reports. The pandemic has further devastated the health and well-being of America’s children, especially those from low-income families. While issues like school safety, teacher salaries, and the decline in student test scores have received the majority of attention, it is time for policymakers to recognize the obvious: healthy kids learn better.

As two men of color who benefited tremendously from quality public education, we have dedicated our careers to advancing equity for others. In 2020, we called for federal candidates to invest $1 trillion in education and health care, including over the next five years $100 billion in free breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Title I schools; $2,500 tax credits for all employees in all Title I schools at a cost of $33 billion; $5.5 billion for the creation of school-based health centers in all Title I schools; $2 billion for full-service community schools; and $130 billion to fully fund school infrastructure improvements.

We know this is a lot of money, and at a time of rising national debt and inflation, many will balk at the idea of committing additional revenue to social expenditures. This is why we suggest that we reframe such expenditures as an investment rather than simply an expense. Like families that put away money for college savings or retirement, we must think of investments made to support the health, education and well-being of children as a way of securing America’s future.

We commend the Biden administration for the monthly tax credits that were part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in 2021. According to estimates by the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University, approximately 3.7 million children were lifted out of poverty during the year that the monthly payments were distributed, and contributed to an estimated decline of nearly 30 percent in the child poverty rate because the additional income made it possible for low-income families to pay for food and other necessities. Even at $160 billion per year, this is a good investment. Unfortunately, the tax credits were discontinued after just one year, leading to a rise in child poverty.

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Over the past two years, bipartisan efforts in Congress have helped to improve access to primary, behavioral, oral, and vision care services in public schools. Bipartisanship in support of children is exactly what we need now. Schools are the logical place to locate such services because that is where the vast majority of children are. In fiscal year 2021, first-time operational funding for school-based health centers was $5 million. In fiscal year 2022, that funding increased to $30 million. For fiscal year 2023, Congress recommended $100 million. The administration has also backed over $400 million in funding for full-service community schools.

We must act now to address the hardships and the looming health crisis facing America’s children. Before the pandemic, about 14 percent of children ages 3 to 18 had no internet access at home, according to the National Center for Education Studies. We are also in the midst of a mental health epidemic. Since 2020, 16.8 percent of children 12 — 17 years sought treatment for mental health, and the suicide rates among children is rising. Additionally, 20 percent of children aged 6-11 years are obese, and the number of children with chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes is growing. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is clear. Children with poor health will grow up to become sickly adults.

The administration recently announced several initiatives to recruit more talented people into teaching. We must also increase the number of school nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers to meet the needs of our children.

Most Americans agreed that healthy, well-educated children are essential for securing America’s future. Investments in our children are one of the best ways to reduce the billions we spend on incarceration and to support people who are unable to take care of themselves. Currently, 37 percent of Americans aged 16 to 65 are currently not in the labor market and earn no income at all. We can and must do better. By addressing educational and health needs, we can increase the productivity of our economy and the health of our nation.

We need a blueprint to guide our efforts to support the nation’s youth, and we need leadership at the federal, state and local level. The National Healthy Schools Collaborative’s Ten-Year Roadmap for Healthy Schools is a good beginning. We urge Congress and the administration to focus on the needs of our children, beginning with the passage of the fiscal year appropriations. Our leaders must ensure that every child has access to top-notch education and quality, affordable health care, regardless of their Zip code. Our future depends on it.

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