From Cradle to Launch (Rethinking Youth Policy)

In Budget Politics, Economic Planning, Economics, Health Care Reform, History and Politics, Inequality, New Deal, Politics of Policy, Poverty, Progressivism, Public Policy, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Welfare State, Youth Policy on November 30, 2009 at 1:15 pm


In general, American society does a really poor job of protecting the young. 21% of American children live in families below the poverty line; another 22% of children live in families that make 100-200% of the poverty line, where a sudden illness or job loss or other crisis can easily send the family back into the ranks of the destitute.

In the face of this, the U.S devotes only 16% of its domestic budget to children, and this share has actually shrunk over the last 50 years.At the same time, youth policy is split between over a hundred programs, with no overarching attention paid to the different aspects of life from cradle to launch.

If we are to do better for the next generation of children, we need to adopt a comprehensive youth policy.

Current Policy:

By and large, Federal youth policy can be divided into eight categories: income security, nutrition, housing, tax credits, health care, social services, education, and training. An almost universal adjective that could be applied to any one of these areas is undersized: Head Start, for example, is the best known and most comprehensive (in terms of combining education, nutrition, child care, and health services) youth program, but it is almost entirely limited to children ages 1-4 in poverty, and even in this case it only serves about 60% of eligible children. SCHIP, even after its most recent expansion, still leaves about 11% of children without health insurance.

In comparison to our social programs for the elderly, which are generally universal (Social Security, Medicare), almost 59% of Federal programs for children are means-tested, which means that the near-poor receive little assistance. At the same time, the composition of spending on children is uneven: tax programs are over twice the size of the next largest category, social services make up only 5%, and virtually nothing is spent on jobs training, employment, or debt prevention.

Given that this funding is split between over a hundred Federal programs, coordination between different categories and the expansion of programs to include the entirety of eligible populations has been made much more difficult.

Creating Comprehensive Support:

As I’ve suggested above, youth policy needs to start with the understanding that all children have to be supported across all eight categories of social policy, and from birth to adulthood. Neglecting some categories of spending only increases the strain on and decreases the positive effects of other areas – children who are sick or hungry can’t learn as well, which both increases the need for additional education spending, and makes said spending less effective than it would be otherwise, and so on. Likewise, assisting children for some periods of life and not others also leads to negative side-effects and loss of efforts. The best example of this process would be the well-known “fade” effect from Head Start –  children who enroll in Head Start show marked improvement in educational performance, but the effect vanishes within the first four years after children “graduate” from eligibility. Finally, protecting a certain proportion of children only, or protecting children under a given line but not above is also a flawed approach, leaving out millions of children in need in a penny-wise, pound-foolish fashion given the increased likelihood of later spending on health care, criminal justice, and incarceration.

Birth to Infancy:

Policy historians and historians of the women’s rights movement have frequently pointed to the work done by progressive activists like Florence Kelly, Lillian Wald, and their colleagues in the Children’s Bureau as one of the most underrated stories in the history of American social policy. Indeed, some of the first successful steps in moving towards universal health care came with the Sheppard-Towner Act of 1920 and the Emergency Maternal and Infant Health Care Program during WWII. In both cases, the “maternalist” progressive movement approached the extension of health coverage to mothers and children as the first step in establishing universal health care for all.

While SCHIP is a worthy effort, one of the longer-term objectives of both child policy and health care reform should be to establish universal health care for both children and mothers that includes pre- and post-natal care and nutrition. Moreover, the extension of health coverage should be accompanied by a change in policy that transforms health coverage for children and mothers from a contributory (i.e, premiums, copays, deductibles, and the like) to a non-contributory system that is “free at the point of use,” by way of beginning to establish the principle of health care as a human right rather than a commodity.

At the same time, health care for infants has to be seen as one part of a package that covers all aspects of life. To ensure a basic level of income, an expanded family allowance system that consolidates existing programs like EITC and the Child Care into a universal benefit that assists the near-poor, the working class, and the middle class as well as the poor should be one element. Likewise, establishing universal paid maternity/paternity and emergency family/medical leave would make it much easier for the 43% of households with children who live within 200% of the poverty line to provide their children with the nurturing and support they need without losing their jobs. Expanding Head Start from 60% of children within 100% of poverty to 100% of children within 200% of poverty would have an enormous impact on children in poverty and near-poverty, especially since the low supply and high demand for child care makes it difficult for these families to find quality care for their children.

In this fashion, we assure that children are protected on multiple fronts – health care, income, leaves, child care, and so on – and in more substantial terms.

Toddler to Tween:

Continuing social supports after infancy is one area where U.S social policy often falls short. For example, Head Start terminates after four years of age. From 1967 through to 1995, Project Follow Through experimented with extending Head Start’s services (although primarily the educational services) through 3rd grade. However, the program was always designed as an experiment, and has been discontinued for the last twenty years.

Re-starting Follow Through as a service program on the Head Start model (combining educational programs such as tutoring, pre- and after-school, and summer sessions with health, nutrition and other services) would be a straightfoward mechanism for ensuring that children continue to receive comprehensive social, health, and education services from kindergarten through to 8th grade. Most importantly, we must ensure that education (as crucial as it is) doesn’t crowd-out other social services; children are more than students and need to be supported as such.

At the same time, we must insure that the coverage system for infants (expanded SCHIP, family allowances, and leaves) continues through this period of a child’s life, in order to prevent the added effort on education during school years from being attenuated by poor health, lack of family support, or income shocks.

Adolescence to Launch:

Moving through to adolescence involves new areas of social provision and protection that need to be managed to ensure that teenagers successfully “launch” as independent adults. In recent years, policy directed at teens has been focused on higher education (although not particularly well), but youth policy requires a broader point of view than the narrow horizon of college acceptance rates.

Youth are workers as well as students. To that end, it is not enough to ensure that higher education should be universal and free, when such an approach leaves out the roughly 75% of young people who don’t go on to college. Providing the same level of support for vocational and technical training, as well as jobs training programs, as we do for liberal arts attendants is crucial to ensuring that as many young people as possible find well-paid skilled work.  At the same time, a permanent youth jobs program would be invaluable in helping young people navigate their entry into the labor market and ensure a successful “launch” at a time when older workers with superior experience are competing for entry level jobs. Without an approach that takes a holistic view of young people, you end up doing little to nothing for the vast majority of the young, and even less to help college attendees translate their academic achievements into economic security.

On a similar bent, much more needs to be done in the area of credit and wealth for the young. Due to the rising costs of education, the ubiquity of credit cards, and the low wages of entry-level positions, young people are increasingly burdened by debts. Two-thirds of college students take on loans to pay for college, at an average level of $23,000 by graduation. In addition, the average young person also holds over $4,000 in credit card debt. When this debt level is combined with low wages and “start-up” costs of establishing a household, the outcome is a generation that is sinking ever deeper into red ink at exactly the time that they need to be building up assets and establishing lifetime savings patterns. Federal policy needs to be expanded in this area, by providing basic transactional credit, creating matching programs for youth savings and investment accounts, and establishing homestead programs to help young people with housing needs.


If any area of social policy gets to the difference of libertarian and progressive outlooks, child policy is it. The laissez faire ideal that “the freedom to succeed goes hand in hand with the freedom to fail” simply doesn’t work for children, whose freedom to succeed is profoundly influenced by the income, health care, nurturing, child care, and education they get from their parents, none of which is under their control. At the same time, the progressive mission of social provision has the practical impact of expanding the actual enjoyment of the freedom to succeed, as young people are given the tools necessary to live as a free person.


  1. […] a unified child policy program will require substantial resources. We need to move towards a universal non-contributory system of […]

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