Longtime U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who is retiring at the end of this year, plans to use his last months in office to shine a spotlight on the condition of children.
Sen. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and the chairman of the Senate education committee’s panel on children and families, last week launched a series of hearings on the “state of the American child.” He will gather testimony from experts who are examining a wide range of issues affecting children, including their health, education, and family and community life.
At the June 8 hearing, the first of four, Sen. Dodd said he plans to introduce legislation to create a national commission on children to regularly and closely examine the needs of American families and identify solutions to their problems.
“There’s a reason our kids get report cards in school,” said Sen. Dodd, who decided not to seek re-election this year after five terms in the Senate and three in the U.S. House of Representatives. “They help us clearly identify how we’re doing. Only by assessing honestly our progress ... can we improve it.”
He and his subcommittee heard from Alma Powell, the chairwoman of the America’s Promise Alliance, in Washington; Elaine Zimmerman, the executive director of the Connecticut Commission on Children, in Hamden, Conn.; Jack Lund, the chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater New York; and Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University, in Washington.
The nation urgently needs to improve the high school graduation rate, reduce childhood obesity and poverty, provide high-quality, affordable preschool and after-care options for working parents, and make sure children have access to health care, the experts said.
Such issues are even more critical in light of the weak U.S. economy and its persistent joblessness, Sen. Dodd said.
“We can’t ignore the fact that this discussion is taking place in the wake of a brutal recession that will have a tragic impact on American families long after the economic indicators have turned around,” he said. “One in seven American children has an unemployed parent. One in five lives in poverty, and an additional 5 million could be driven into poverty before this recession is through. One in four currently uses food stamps, and half of all kids will use them at some point during their childhood.
“This recession will end, but its impact will endure.”
A report released June 8 by the Foundation for Child Development measures the impact of the recession, and it says children will be more likely to live in poverty this year and have two parents who are unemployed. Fewer children will enroll in pre-K programs, and fewer teenagers will find jobs, the report says. ( “Report: Tough Times Ahead for Children of the Great Recession,” this issue.)
In further fallout from the hard times, it says, more children are likely to commit suicide, be overweight, and be victimized by crime.
The challenges that children face have been getting a lot of recent attention in Washington. First lady Michelle Obama has made it a signature issue to reduce childhood obesity. Last month, the federal government’s childhood-obesity task force issued a plan for addressing the problem. (” U.S. Issues Guidance for Children’s Fitness,” May 19, 2010.)
Against that backdrop, Sen. Dodd said a new commission is needed to bring experts together to address the overall well-being of children.
“I know people think rather than solve a problem, we form a commission,” he said. “But this will be a way to strip out the ideology from the debate.”
To which Mr. Lund, of the YMCA, replied, “If we have so many commissions, how can we not have a commission that focuses on children?”
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Dodd Spotlights Children’s Issues