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December 01, 2016

Improving Opportunities for Children: Advice for the New Administration

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

A young man learns his 18-year-old girlfriend is pregnant. They will have the baby. He promises her he’ll look for a job to support them, even if it means leaving school. No one in his family works. His dad just got out of prison and his mom receives public assistance, enough to get by. His two older brothers, school dropouts, live at home and hang out drinking with friends. He struggles to find a way out.

Improving opportunities for this young man and others like him was the focus of an Urban Institute lecture November 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. The panel featured two economists and a developmental psychologist:  

  • Ron Haskins, PhD in developmental psychology, senior fellow in economic studies, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, and senior consultant at the Anne E. Casey Foundation.
  • Isabel Sawhill, PhD in economics, senior fellow in economic studies, Brookings Institution. 
  • C. Eugene Steuerle, PhD in economics, institute fellow and Richard B. Fisher chair, Urban Institute. 

These speakers shared thoughts for the new administration on ways to create opportunities for children and youth in America. Their presentations stressed the need for long-term family stability, earning at least a high school diploma, and having a job.

Support federal funding for children and youth.

Federal funding for programs that support children and youth is critical yet children get squeezed out in favor of other budget priorities. “We have just not built growth into children’s programs,” said Steuerle. Current areas of focus in the federal budget are health,  retirement, and tax cuts, he said. There is so much emphasis on these three areas that children are getting squeezed. The President will have to take leadership to build growth in the federal budget for children, he said.

Boost economic mobility for young people.

Sawhill described three factors that help young people achieve economic success and independence: 

Education—Graduating high school, at minimum, and pursuing higher education.

Jobs—If one member of each family worked full time, it could make a big difference.

Stable families—a committed relationship with another adult.

The presence of one of these factors— achieving a high school diploma or higher, securing a job, or living in a stable family—could reduce the poverty rate from 13.5% to 2%, said Sawhill. How to do it? 

  • Focus on evidence-based programs that help youth achieve a reasonable level of education (home visiting, high quality early childhood education, school reading programs). 
  • Create a full-employment economy and reduce unemployment (the most important antipoverty program is a job). 
  • Educate and empower young people to enter stable relationships and not have unplanned pregnancies.


Further evidence-based programs for children and families.

The Obama administration is the most data-oriented, evidence-based administration ever, said Haskins. A wide range of evidence-based programs have started, many from the private sector and some from foundations. Their explicit role is to stop states from spending money on programs that don’t work, said Haskins. Programs such as home visiting and teen pregnancy prevention programs, among others, are being rigorously evaluated to determine effectiveness. The new administration needs to continue this evidence-based focus to ensure programs supported by federal dollars truly work, said Haskins.

Fund innovative programs for children and youth.

Evidence-based, proven programs are critical but should not shut down funding new, promising approaches. “We can’t let a whole generation of kids wait until the research community figures what works and what doesn’t to decide whether to fund something,” said Sawhill. Exciting ideas for efforts that have not yet been evaluated deserve a chance. Allowing innovation in programs that evaluations show have limited success can help them move the needle, she said.

As an example, Sawhill said teen pregnancy prevention needs to go online to put sex education where teens go for information. College and school-based health centers also need to start providing long-term pregnancy prevention to help young people avoid unplanned pregnancies. These are untested approaches but necessary to move pregnancy prevention programs into the 21st century. 

Men’s roles in teen pregnancy prevention is another less studied area ripe for new programs, said Haskins. “We lack information on what would make men not want to have children and their role in preventing unwanted pregnancies,” he said. 

Create opportunities in young people’s lives.

Hands-on education and being explicit about opportunities for youth is important, said Steuerle. For example, emphasizing that everyone can go to college or pursue apprenticeships. “It helps to keep kids busy, active, and engaged in society and encourage them in what they can do,” he said. 

Sawhill agreed, noting that creating opportunity in young people’s lives gives them the motivation to want to change—to prevent a birth or avoid an unstable relationship, for example. These changes can open new paths that can lay the groundwork for self-sufficiency and economic mobility—education, employment, stable families.

Shift budget priorities.

Sawhill shared some existing federal budget areas where compromises could be made to benefit low-income children and families:

  • Investing in infrastructure as a way to provide good jobs. 
  • Enhancing the child tax credit to support low-income families. The current child tax credit supports families in the middle and the top but not the bottom.
  • Increasing the earned income tax credit for individuals in low-wage jobs who don’t yet have children. 
  • Increasing the national minimum wage, following the lead of several states.

The panelists offered hope for keeping vulnerable young people and their families on the radar of the new federal administration when deciding federal budget priorities. The suggested strategies build on existing efforts and knowledge of what works but also provide room for creativity and innovation.

Claire Chiamulera, legal editor, ABA Center on Children and the Law is CLP’s editor.


Learn More

Watch the panel presentation.

Resource: C. Eugene Steuerle. “Prioritizing Opportunity for all in the Federal Budget: Executive Summary,” Urban Institute, April 2016.