In his farewell speech last week, President Barack Obama declared that supporting young people of color is not only a matter of justice but a common-sense investment in our future: “If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.” That’s not just rhetoric. By 2020, children and youth of color will represent half of all people under age 18 If not for these children of color, the American workforce would shrink as baby boomers continue to retire.
Unfortunately, our national future is in jeopardy.
Outside of President Obama’s remarks, there has been far too little attention to the damage that President-elect Trump’s policy proposals and nominees would wreak on America’s children – and America’s future. The policies proposed by the incoming administration and Republicans in Congress would undercut families and take away the core building blocks that now help them succeed.
Let’s start with Trump’s proposal to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Health and nutrition are the cornerstones of children’s lifelong success. Growing evidence shows that children who get help from Medicaid (health insurance) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) in their early years not only do better in childhood but also have better health, educational, and employment outcomes many years later, into adulthood.
Children also do better when their parents get health and mental health treatment – something that’s far more likely today under the ACA than in the past. For example, a mother’s untreated depression can place at risk her children’s safety, development, and learning. So it is good news that, by opting to expand Medicaid under the ACA, 32 states have made mental health care, including treatment for depression, accessible to far more people, most recently demonstrated by a new report from Ohio.
During the Obama years, children’s health insurance coverage soared to the highest levels ever — 94.7 percent — and SNAP lifted 4.6 million children out of poverty in 2015. But the nation now risks a sharp slide backwards. Researchers estimate that even without additional cuts to Medicaid, President-elect Trump’s and congressional Republicans’ plans to repeal the ACA would take health insurance away from 4 million children, and many million more parents.
Moreover, Congress could multiply the damage by cutting or capping Medicaid and SNAP – which House Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed. Both programs are now available to all low-income children who qualify, without waiting lists or arbitrary caps. Reversing course on the important progress made over the last eight years would create immediate harm for a generation of children and pose long-term risks for their health, learning, and economic success into adulthood.
But these threats are just the beginning of the risks posed by the incoming administration and Congress to today’s children. Trump has also targeted immigrants and their families with threats of deportation, which directly endangers the stability of about 5 million American citizen children who have at least one undocumented parent, placing at risk their schooling, health, and later success. Creating a broader climate of hatred and failing to invest in immigrant families destabilizes the future of fully one quarter of today’s children, and takes aim directly at the nation’s future economic vitality. Threatening to revoke protection for young people who immigrated to the United States as children, the so-called Dreamers, forces hundreds of thousands of students, workers, and parents back into the shadows.
The incoming administration has also proposed policies that would dramatically worsen the working conditions of millions of low-income Americans, which had begun to improve under President Obama.
Because the large majority (70 percent) of poor children live in families with at least one worker, the wages, hours, and conditions those working parents encounter on the job matter enormously to children’s futures. Crucial policies affect whether parents earn enough to make ends meet, get the hours they need for a stable income, can take a day off for illness with pay and without being fired. Yet those policies, which were beginning to improve nationwide, are now also in jeopardy from an administration threatening to end President Obama’s executive orders that protected working people. The current nominee for Secretary of Labor heads a fast food company that has violated many of the important labor standards enforced by the department he aspires to lead.
For children of color, disparities in their parents’ access to good jobs are just one of many systemic obstacles to success. Despite high levels of work among poor Black and Latino families, and despite progress during the Obama administration, about one third of Black children and three in ten Latino children lived in poverty in 2015. Yet the incoming administration seems poised to build higher barriers to children’s success, using rhetoric that depicts black communities, for example, as “crime-infested” and “falling apart.” Rather than investing in young people and their communities so they can have access to good education and careers, the administration favors deploying a discredited “law and order” approach.
Finally, the threat of deep budget cuts jeopardizes many programs that support low-income children and their families. For example, Pell grants, which have been a critical tool for students who otherwise couldn’t afford the promise of higher earnings, are on the chopping block. Doubling down on the damage to low-income people, congressional proposals to fund federal-state programs like Medicaid though capped block grants could devastate state budgets as well – forcing states to cut back, not step up.
We must push back against this agenda with urgency, preventing damage where possible and reversing it as quickly as possible when not. Even short-term policy failures have long-run implications for the country, because hardships for children and young people translate into long-term damage to their success in school and on the job. For example, the bipartisan BRIDGE Act, just filed in the House and Senate, seeks to forestall damage by giving temporary protection from deportation, along with work authorization to the 700,000+ Dreamers.
And we must fight back on this agenda as a whole, understanding the damage all our children and all our future would face from all its components – attacks on the core safety net, on immigrant families and families of color, on low-wage workers, on the budget— for programs that help low-income Americans. We must see the connection, as President Obama did in highlighting the importance of investments for all our children, and not allow ourselves to be split apart.