The 2024 election season is in full swing, and there’s plenty of tension around thin margins and tight races. But the folks with the most to gain — or lose — are the ones who can’t vote.

Our nation’s children are in crisis, and they desperately need brave, vocal champions. In 2021, Congress helped cut child poverty nearly in half, to the lowest levels ever recorded, with an expanded Child Tax Credit. The number of children without health insurance declined for the first time in a half-decade because of policies maintaining their access to care. Food insecurity — in layman’s terms, kids going hungry — dropped to a record low.

Most of those gains have evaporated, and new policies are putting children farther behind. Child poverty has nearly doubled from a record low of 5.2 percent in 2021 to 12.4 percent in 2022More than 5 million children have lost healthcare coverage as protections have expired — and this is in the middle of what the U.S. surgeon general has declared a children’s mental health crisis. Politicians are wrestling over school meal programs that keep more than 30 million children fed and the nutrition standards that keep them healthy.

Why is this happening? All too often, children are an afterthought. Lawmakers are quick to kiss babies, to invoke platitudes — “Children are our future.” But inevitably, there is a disconnect between the positive, superficial messaging about children and the measures taken to prioritize their well-being.

Candidates may talk about the importance of protecting our children, but when it comes to centering children in actual policy decisions on education, economic security, climate, gun violence, healthcare and the prospects of the next generation, all but a few fall woefully short.

In the coming elections, every candidate in every race at every level must abandon empty rhetoric and embrace a children’s agenda that puts kids at the center of their campaigns. Prioritizing children is not only good for kids; it’s good for all of us.

It also wins elections.

A campaign that puts kids first would support cutting child poverty, for instance, by restoring the expanded Child Tax Credit. It would be loud and proud about staunching the exodus of children from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It would advocate for a Farm Bill that delivers adequate amounts of nutrient-rich, belly-filling food that helps children grow into productive citizens. 

For instance, a campaign that puts kids first would be audacious about solving the childcare crisis. It would offer a platform that invests much more in our nation’s children — who receive less than 10 percent of the federal budget despite being nearly a quarter of the population — and would push policies ensuring all children are safe from violence, abuse and neglect.

And a kids’ first campaign would win. American voters believe — by a 6-to-1 margin — that we are spending too little on children’s health, safety and well-being, according to a nationwide poll by Lake Research Partners. The same voters said they favor the expanded Child Tax Credit by 72 percent to 21 percent and that support crosses party lines. Suburban moms and Latino voters have said they could be swayed by policies supporting families and national survey finds that voters on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly support investing in caregiving priorities, such as childcare, elder and disability care, and paid family and medical leave.

Centering children has worked in the past for the more than 100 members of Congress who continue to be elected at least partly by putting children first. Donors have also noticed that kids are a winning platform and have begun forming Political Action Committees that support child-friendly candidates.

We call on all 2024 candidates, up and down the ballot, to follow this lead. And we call on voters — in every state, in every district — to insist that kids come first.