In President George W. Bush’s May 31st National Child’s Day proclamation, he pledged to provide our children “with the care, protection and education they deserve.” He also called upon “citizens to celebrate National Child’s Day with the appropriate ceremonies and activities.” Over the last six and a half years, I have heard the President make similar fine expressions of his commitment to children. However where I grew up my parents and community co-parents drew distinctions between saying and doing. The President has talked a lot about children but his record offers little to celebrate as he leaves millions of children behind in his policies and budget choices.
Our children have lost ground during Mr. Bush’s time in office. The United States lags behind most industrialized democracies in infant morality and providing health insurance to all children. Nine million children in America are without health insurance. As Congress considers reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), Mr. Bush has indicated that he does not intend to support increased funding levels that would extend health care coverage to the millions of children currently uninsured. In fact, his budget would result in one to two million currently insured children losing SCHIP coverage. At the Children’s Defense Fund we urge the President to go beyond support for SCHIP and embrace the provisions the All Healthy Children Act (S. 1564/H.R. 1688) that would guarantee health care for all children and pregnant women.
The President should take action to protect children where he has fallen short in other areas. The Bush Administration must marshal the vast resources of the government to stem the flow of tens of thousands of impoverished children through America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline leading to the voluminous incarceration of poor Black and Latino children and teens. The prison pipeline is made up of an array of social and economic factors including the lack of access to health and mental health care, poor schools and broken child welfare and juvenile justice systems. These factors can be diminished by more effective and increased national investments in children. In addition to ensuring that all children receive health care, the President needs to back up his no child left behind legislation with resources to increase the pool of teachers and reduce class sizes. He needs to make Head Start and Early Head Start available to all eligible children so they have a chance to get ready for school. And he can order the Justice Department to eliminate racial inequities in the administration of juvenile justice.
President Bush’s response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005 was appalling. Thousands of children continue to experience unimaginable levels of loss, trauma and dislocation. As recently as March this year, about 100,000 children along the Gulf Coast still did not live where they did before the hurricane struck. Too many remain packed into “temporary,” overcrowded FEMA trailers that can be blown away in the next big storm and are not safe and healthy long term places for children to live. Thousands of children have fallen desperately behind educationally while qualified teachers, textbooks and supplies are in drastically short supply. The President promised bold action in the immediate aftermath of the storm and in his own words, committed “to help the citizens of the Gulf Coast to overcome this disaster, put their lives back together, and rebuild their communities.” These words are a faint echo to Katrina’s children who are still waiting for their country to come to their rescue.
When he took office, Mr. Bush declared himself a “compassionate conservative.” The American people are still waiting for a clear demonstration of what compassion means in that context. It seems that Mr. Bush has not yet grasped that as the president of our nation and head of the government, just and competent governance is required. We see a President who appears before backdrops of uniformed soldiers and Marines, law enforcement officers and prescreened audiences of loyalists to eliminate the risk that his policies might be questioned. These carefully orchestrated set pieces are emblematic of a President who is insulated from some of our nation’s most pressing social concerns like the millions of children who must go without health and mental health care, proper nutrition, quality education and adequate housing. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the poor children who grow up on an uneven playing field with scant opportunity to develop and thrive. Surely in a $2.9 trillion federal budget, the President can find the means to make children safe from the terrors of poverty, sickness, hunger and homelessness and secure America’s future. Every dollar invested in children is returned many times over in the development of productive, contributing adults who raise families and build stronger communities. If the President would practice what he preaches and provide some national leadership in that direction, we might have more to celebrate next National Child’s Day.