Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

This Could Be the Moment to Help the Poorest Among Us: Our Nation’s Children

The legislation, investments, and collaborative action we need
By S. Paul Reville & John B. King Jr. — March 05, 2021 4 min read
Silhouettes of people wearing face masks

Across our nation, getting to a place where every child has the opportunity to thrive requires work both inside and outside of schools with whole communities involved. In the wealthiest nation on earth, it seems ridiculous to have to make the case that—in order for children to learn—they need access to nutritious food, good quality health care, safe and secure housing, clean water and air, and the kinds of policies that support their families’ economic viability. But, given that our country has allowed widespread childhood poverty to persist—children remain the poorest age group in America—and given the lack of leadership we’ve seen on these issues at the federal level during the Trump administration, we do have to make that case.

To be sure, our nation needs a new, bold social compact to support the well-being of our children, particularly the most vulnerable. This new compact will require federal action. It will require new investments in “people power.” And it will require the support and expansion of collaborative action in local communities. Schools cannot do all this work alone.

In terms of federal action, national leaders who are talking about equity and social justice should seize this moment of heightened public consciousness to drive significant policy changes that can eliminate food insecurity; assure increased access to high-quality health and mental-health services amid a pandemic; and expand the supply of stable, affordable housing across America.

We’re encouraged to see President Joe Biden’s recent executive action that helps working families keep a roof over their heads, increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for as many as 12 million Americans, and expand the program that provides low-income families food dollars equivalent to the value of school meals that are no longer available because of COVID-19 school closures.

On February 27, the House of Representatives passed the American Rescue Plan, sending the $1.9 trillion stimulus package to the Senate. We hope that the Biden administration will take additional federal action to ensure that part of the bill’s proposed $130 billion fund for K-12 schools directly supports state and local efforts to create and expand community schools. We know that community schools offer families a one-stop hub for vital connections to health and social services that help children get what they need to succeed.

A new social compact for our kids also requires investments in those professionals who can nurture healthy childhood development, putting caring, expert adults to work in service of our children in innovative ways.

For example, every child should be assigned an “adult navigator” to connect them and their families with supports and opportunities inside and outside the school system. This work is starting to happen in Nashville, Tenn., where the public schools now guarantee that every child will have an adult navigator. This could and should happen everywhere.

We also need to support and advocate legislation in states, like the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which allocates substantial resources to place a community schools coordinator and a health-services practitioner in schools that are serving 55 percent or more students living in poverty.

Similarly, we need a federal commitment to invest in people power to overcome the challenges children are facing with learning that has been interrupted as a result of COVID-19. We believe America needs a national tutoring corps, which could be created through a dramatic expansion of national service.

We are heartened that just such an effort was proposed last year by Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and a bipartisan coalition. Congress should pass this proposal immediately. Doing so would provide both the people and the urgency necessary not only for children to recover and accelerate their learning amid the pandemic but also to transform our education system so that it more equitably serves students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Having dedicated tutors would provide the right pathway to link students back to their schoolwork, to keep families at the center of the education process, and to connect children to needed supports and opportunities.

Finally, we need to create opportunities for collaborative action in local communities. Children’s cabinets, collaborative coalitions of government agencies, and community representatives devoted to the shared goal of child well-being, represent outstanding local- and state-level examples of this work. These cabinets, now in place in dozens of cities, larger metropolitan regions, and some rural areas, help community-based leaders, nonprofits, and government agencies coordinate and communicate policies, funding, and services to close significant gaps in support. And they also offer ideal opportunities for business leaders to step up and begin to make progress for the children in their communities.

These and other strategies are urgently needed if we want to expand opportunity to all our nation’s children, grow our economy, strengthen our communities, and preserve our democracy. This is the crusade for equity and social justice to which many recently have offered tribute and for which we need decisive action now. Let’s all get to work.

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