Successful Children’s Programs Neglected by Media, Politicians
October 10, 2012 – Limited media coverage of successful children’s programs and weak support from politicians have resulted in the nation neglecting the development of America’s youngest residents, professor William Gormley says in his latest book – Voices for Children: Rhetoric and Public Policy (Brookings Institution, 2012).
“The media have not given economic arguments [about children’s issues] that much attention in part because they don’t give substantive arguments about children much attention, period,” says Gormley, who co-directs Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s (GPPI) Center for Research on Children in the U.S.
“It’s not as if the media are systematically ignoring or suppressing economic arguments or social benefit arguments that support children’s programs, it’s just that … when the mass media cover children as a policy problem it’s usually in conjunction with some scandal…”
Gormley says coverage tends to be lacking when it comes to “some of the most difficult public policy issues involving children that we ought to be struggling with as a society.”
Gormley says that if this year's presidential candidates were talking about poor children, the mass media would be too. He believes the candidates don’t often address the problem because children can’t vote.
“If you look at the presidential election campaign, neither party is talking about poor children,” Gormley says. “Both parties are talking about the middle class, and occasionally they talk about middle-class children, but poor children are getting next to no attention in the presidential campaign.”
The expert on children and public policy says previous Brookings research has shown that the federal government spends seven times more on programs for the elderly than it does on programs that enhance child development and improve child welfare.
Speaking up for Kids
“Children cannot speak for themselves, so the rest of us have to make the case for government programs that improve their health, education, and well-being,” he notes. “State and local governments strike a better balance than the federal government, but governments generally spend a lot more on the elderly than on children.”
The reason, Gormley says, is that the elderly are well represented in the political process through organizations such as AARP, while children, particularly young children, cannot really represent themselves.
“The United States, for all the rhetoric that we devote to children, is not a very child-friendly society,” Gormley says.
The Georgetown professor found that advocates’ emphasis on economic facets of the issue is more effective than others in persuading voters to support children’s programs.
His research also found that advocates are more effective when they demonstrate that children’s programs will have positive long-term consequences for society than when they attempt to connect children to certain moral imperatives.
“Children's advocates who want to persuade undecided voters and fence-straddling politicians need to be able to demonstrate that policies that benefit children, especially poor children, are a good investment in our nation's future,” he explains.
Gormley has long been involved in the Oklahoma Project, in which he and other researchers evaluated the effectiveness of that state’s pre-K program, which serves 4-year-olds regardless of income. The researchers found that the program had wide-ranging positive effects.
The professor says that such early intervention, while children are still developing, is paramount to helping children in poverty, children with special needs and children living in fractured families.
“We need to focus on our children because the most successful public policies are those that intervene early in life,” he says. “In general, the earlier we intervene with successful programs, the more likely we are to achieve significant benefits for the future at reasonable costs to taxpayers.”