By Bob Sege and Kay Johnson
This week, we focus on opportunities to spread HOPE (Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences) with the new Biden-Harris Administration. With the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, families feel more stress than before, adding to long-simmering concerns about child poverty and its implications. On a more positive note, the recent resurgence in calls for racial justice have spurred many more Americans to work toward changing for good the systems which have institutionalized racism embedded in their approaches and that affect so many vulnerable children.
Let’s start with two undeniable and important facts. First, American children are more diverse, and more likely to be poor, than any other segment of the population. Second, pro-family policies are truly bipartisan; liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, have all developed important pro-family policy advances. Even with a divided government in Washington, DC and a wide array of state power structures, the clear need to invest in today’s children can drive change everywhere.
Policy Opportunities to Increase HOPE
HOPE rests on four Building Blocks, which describe the kinds of positive childhood experiences children need for optimal development. While these Building Blocks focus on childhood experiences, policies can make access to these experiences harder or easier for families. Based on analyses by the American Academy of Pediatrics, First Focus on Children, InCK Marks, and others, we see policy opportunities to improve children’s health and well-being, to increase HOPE.
Building Block #1, Relationships. Solid foundational relationships are critical to healthy human development.1 Expanding paid family leave is one of the most important policies to reduce economic stress on families when they welcome a new infant, allowing time for strong parent-child attachment, and has been shown to reduce abuse and neglect. Some states have already adopted paid family leave, as has the U.S. government for its own employees. The Congress and the President should adopt a new federal policy to ensure paid family leave. To foster social-emotional development among young children, the Biden-Harris plans include funds to support an early childhood development expert in every community health center and grants to help cities place early childhood development experts in other pediatrician practices serving a high proportion of Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
Building Block #2, Environments. Children need to grow up in safe, stable, and equitable environments. Opportunity should not be determined by where children live. The new Administration has promised increased investment in high-quality child care, expansion of home visiting, prevention of lead exposure, universal pre-kindergarten for all 3- and 4-year-olds, tripling of Title I funding for schools serving low-income children, and action to reduce gun violence. In addition, President-Elect Biden made a commitment to action in the First 100 days to reverse policies that separate children from their parents at the border, restore sensible asylum laws, reverse the public charge rule regarding immigrants’ use of government services, and to protect the Dreamers and their families.
Building Block #3, Engagement. Particularly for youth, engagement in family, school, and community are important to health and well-being. The most vulnerable children and youth need support from public policy to have positive experiences and engagement. New investments in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, protections for LGBTQ+ youth, criminal justice reform, and support for children and youth through improvements in foster care offer to expand opportunities for many children and youth who are left out too often.
Building Block #4, Social-Emotional Development. Research tells us that social-emotional development is a key component for cognitive development, school readiness, learning, and future mental health. It is the outcome of positive, stimulating, and nurturing relationships—to build early relational health—in the context of safe and well-resourced families and communities.2, 3 State and local governments can adopt policies that remove barriers—including fees—that keep low income children out of extra-curricular activities that provide these opportunities.4 In addition, the new Administration has proposed major new investments in social-emotional development in our schools.
Centering Children in Policy
Large-scale investment in resources and policies that support children and families can help to secure our future as a country. Can we hold the Biden-Harris Administration to their plan to develop a “Children’s Budget” and support the creation of an independent Office for Children to raise the visibility and commitment to the future? Congress and the President should take immediate steps to ensure that all children, and their parents, have access to affordable coverage and high-quality health care. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report offers A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty, which identifies evidence-based programs and policies for reducing the number of children living in poverty by half within 10 years.5 Policy and budget decisions should reflect our consensus that children should be healthy and launched on a trajectory for lifelong success, but never be homeless, hungry, and afraid that their parents will be suddenly arrested, shot, or deported.
 Willis D. Early relational health and protective factors. Center for the Study of Social Policy. 2020. https://cssp.org/resource/early-relational-health-and-protective-factors/  Willis D, Sege R, Johnson K. Changing the mindset: Foundational relationships counter adversity with HOPE. (Blog). Center for the Study of Social Policy. 2020.  Johnson K, Willis D, Doyle S. Guide to Leveraging Opportunities Between Title V and Medicaid for Promoting Social-Emotional Development. Center for the Study of Social Policy and Johnson Group Consulting, Inc. 2020.  Snellman, Kaisa; Silva, Jennifer M.; Putnam, Robert D. Inequity outside the Classroom: Growing Class Differences in Participation in Extracurricular Activities. Voices in Urban Education, n40 p7-14 2015  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty. The National Academies Press. 2019. https://doi.org/10.17226/25246