By Peter Fenn, opinion contributor The Hill 3/20/2021
President Biden has signed into law a $1.9 trillion dollar relief plan that many had thought impossible just months ago.
Despite Republican Congressional opposition, Biden successfully ushered in the popular acceptance of a new role for government, overturning a more than 40-year trend in government bashing. The American Rescue Plan, widely supported across the country, certainly contrasts with President Reagan’s Inaugural line, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem.”
From FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s through the 1960s, there was widespread acceptance that the federal government needed to step up to the plate when the public’s health, safety and economic well-being were in peril. Now, it may be possible to create a national consensus for key priorities.
There has been a lot of talk about infrastructure for a dozen years — but no action. Same is true for Social Security and Medicare reform, overhaul of our education system, immigration reform, climate change and a host of other problems that won’t disappear with benign neglect.
Political polarization, obstructionism, failure to compromise have all been the order of the day.
There is one area, however, that may provide common ground for those of different parties and political persuasions: protecting our children. There has been widespread agreement in the need for child tax credits, and ever since the George W. Bush administration up until the Biden relief bill, we have seen Democrats and Republicans get on board. Conservatives such as Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and lately Mitt Romney (R-Utah) have worked on legislation.
There are a whole host of issues surrounding the welfare of children that are becoming top of mind, especially during the pandemic. In addition to temporarily cutting child poverty in half with the latest $1.9 trillion relief package, efforts to ensure affordable child care, expand Head Start and early childhood education, provide health care and expand nutrition programs should be addressed as soon as possible.
One idea to highlight the focus on children, suggested by my colleague Andrew Yarrow, is the reinstitution of the White House Conference on Children. First initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909 to promote a “high standard of child protection by the national government,” these conferences were held every ten years, often with delegations from around the world.
The last conference was held in 1971, when Richard Nixon was President, to examine health care, day care, early childhood education and attacking racism. Interesting how relevant those topics are still.
There are 74 million children in the United States today. Of those, nearly 11 million are poor, about 1 in 7.
Over the five decades since 1971, we have moved many millions of seniors out of poverty; now it is time we did the same for children and struggling families.
The American Rescue Plan is a start, but many of the parts of that bill, including tax credits, are only temporary to bridge the gap caused by the pandemic.
It is time to consider re-establishing a White House Conference on Children, with the full backing and endorsement of Republicans and Democrats alike. It could have co-chairs from both parties and an equal membership of party leaders, along with experts on the issues confronting our children. We may not be able to achieve immediate agreement on some of the other tough problems we face, but this should be something we can all agree on: the health and welfare of our kids.
Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.