Tuesday’s State of the Union address offers President Joe Biden an opportunity to communicate directly to the American people, Congress, and the world. All of these constituencies have proven, over and again, that they agree on one thing: We must protect our children.
One of the few instances of bipartisan agreement in the previous Congress came over one of the nation’s most divisive issues—guns. After a horrifying shooting at a Texas elementary school left 19 children and two teachers dead, Republicans and Democrats came together to invest in mental health infrastructure and pass the first meaningful gun violence legislation in years. The president signed it into law. In these days of divided government, when the two sides can argue over seemingly anything, from paying the nation’s bills to whose classified documents scandal is worse, the fact that children brought them together over something as polarizing as guns offers great promise.
That does not mean it will all be smooth sailing. The Biden administration set forth to accomplish a plan that First Focus on Children called potentially “the most important piece of legislation for children and families, ever.” But when negotiations got tough, lawmakers lost sight of the children. The Build Back Better Act included 436 mentions of children. In its final form, the Inflation Reduction Act, children were mentioned just once.
This is why Biden must keep children in the spotlight during Tuesday’s address. If he does, there will be plenty of room for Republicans and Democrats to come together. Both sides are concerned about inflation and are desperate to help American families struggling to make ends meet. Economists, analysts, and the U.S. Census Bureau all agree the single best defense against inflation families have had to date was the improved Child Tax Credit and the monthly cash infusions it provided them. More than 90 percent of low-income families spent their monthly reimbursements on food, rent, utilities, education, and other necessities.
The debate over making these improvements permanently broke down when the conversation shifted to the deservedness of the adults in the children’s lives. As lawmakers sparred over whether parents should have the money, they lost the dot on how profoundly this money serves children. Those monthly payments ensured that children were fed. Housed. Clothed. Educated. And ultimately, they lifted roughly 3 million children out of poverty, a change that reset their path in life and paved it for success.
The American people also overwhelmingly want to see their lawmakers unify behind children. A May 2022 poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners, found voters of both political parties want federal policy that centers children and invests in their well-being.
America’s kids are not okay. Children, especially historically marginalized children, continue to suffer from the reverberations of COVID-19. A mental health crisis among children and adolescents escalated as children experienced isolation and increased stress. Remote schooling led to learning loss and wiped-out academic gains for many children. Households with children continue to disproportionately struggle to afford rent, food, and other basic needs, especially as the cost of these necessities remains high. Supply chain disruptions affected the availability of essential items for children, like baby formula and medicine.
Now is the time for the president to use this very public forum to demand that Congress pursue an agenda that invests in kids and reverses the hardships they have faced. To remind lawmakers on both sides that they share this common interest. That child poverty, family homelessness, and infant mortality — all areas in which we (shamefully) lead the developed world — are not just a moral stain, but a policy choice. One that inhibits the country’s future. And one that both sides, together, can solve.