Kids in the Presidential Campaigns: How the Front-runners Stack Up on Children’s Issues

Group of boys

James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, sent a letter Wednesday to CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC News’ Martha Raddatz imploring the moderators to place more emphasis on kids in their questions during the next presidential debate this Sunday. Steyer wrote that kids were hardly mentioned in the debates thus far, and said candidates should be more sensitive when speaking on issues like racism and sexism, because children are tuning in to the events.

In the first presidential and vice presidential debates, little was said about what the campaigns will do for children, adolescents and young adults. The word child was only uttered twice. Both candidates briefly agreed that affordable child care is an important issue, which they would confront differently if elected.

“As far as child care is concerned and so many other things, I think Hillary [Clinton] and I agree on that,” Donald Trump said during the first presidential debate. “We probably disagree a little bit as to numbers and amounts and what we’re going to do, but perhaps we’ll be talking about that later.”

In the vice presidential debate, the only topics concerning young people centered on abortion rights and the 100,000 kids in danger in war-torn Aleppo.

“The kids are watching — and it is important for our candidates to think about that every time they speak,” Steyer stated in the letter. “On October 9, let’s talk about real issues that impact families and our kids. Not only that, let’s force candidates to be respectful — not just toward each other but to the issues they are discussing, from immigration to foreign policy.”

He asked the debate moderators for three things:

  • Invite kids to watch the debate in person;
  • Begin the debate with a statement that kids and families are watching and the candidates should respect that and interrupt candidates if they make inappropriate remarks;
  • Ask the candidates questions about what message they intend to send the children who are watching the debate.

The absence of children’s issues in the debates could be because people typically don’t base their votes on youth policy, said Shay Bilchik, director of theCenter for Juvenile Justice Reform at the McCourt School of Public Policy in Georgetown University. “It doesn’t surprise me that the issue has not come up in the debates. Generally, what we know from research that’s been done is that while people in this country value very highly the well-being of our children, it generally is not an issue they vote on directly.”

The campaigns

Though Clinton hasn’t spoken about these topics in the debates, Bilchik said, her campaign has focused on children’s issues in many ways, such as on her website and during her speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Trump has only a “shell” of a policy plan regarding youth issues, Bilchik said. “It’s not about are you a Republican or a Democrat, it is about [if] children’s issues [will] rise to a high level of priority within an administration.”

Trump’s child care proposal is the only policy stance he has directly addressed on children’s issues in a campaign focused heavily on subjects such as border security and economic growth. Hillary Clinton, the 1977 co-founder of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, has unveiled several positions regarding children’s issues: child care, expanding early childhood education, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and eliminating college student debt.

“There are political campaigns that go by where we don’t even hear mention of kids,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a nonpartisan advocacy organization working to make children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Clinton “really injected those issues into her campaign, and we are seeing kids’ issues discussed during this campaign. Hopefully during the debates, there is at least one question pertaining to 25 percent of the population.”

Child care

The Republican nominee’s child care proposal would allow parents to deduct child care expenses from their income taxes and enroll in a tax-free dependent care savings account, up to $2,000 per year; provide low-income households a child care rebate and matching $500 contribution to their savings; give employers incentives to offer child care services at the workplace, and provide six weeks of paid work leave to new mothers “only when employers don’t offer paid maternity leave,” according to the Trump Campaign website.

The proposal has been criticized for excluding fathers in paid paternity leave. The policy’s champion, daughter Ivanka Trump, said the plan was intended to help mothers recuperate after childbirth, but it also includes adopted mothers, who don’t require physical recuperation from bearing a baby.

[Related: Strong Education Programs, Supports Can Be Potent for Justice-Involved Youth]

Trump claimed that Clinton lacked a child care plan during a Sept. 13 speech in Aston, Pennsylvania. “Yet very little meaningful policy work has been done in this area, and my opponent has no child care plan. She never will and if it ever evolves into a plan it’ll never get done anyway. All talk. No action,” reported.

However, fact-checkers ruled that Clinton displayed her child care and early childhood education plan months before Trump’s statement. Clinton’s proposal calls for 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, funded by increasing taxes on wealthy Americans. Her plan also includes universal access to preschool for 4-year olds and doubling federal funding to Early Head Start and the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program, along with child development and support programs for children younger than age 3 and pregnant women. Clinton’s plan would increase child care on college campuses to take care of an additional 250,000 kids. The goal is for no American family to expend more than 10 percent of its income on child care.

Juvenile justice reform

Clinton has also proposed dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to end up in the adult criminal system. She proposes providing $2 billion in support to schools to reform punishment-focused disciplinary policies. States would be called on to reform school disturbance laws and states encouraged to use federal education funding for social and emotional support interventions.

“We are very excited to see Secretary Clinton on her website calling for reforms particularly focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Geoff Foster, director of organizing and policymaking at UTEC, a center for disconnected teenagers in Lowell, Massachusetts. “That’s something that we are very supportive of, and we are excited about the policy opportunities that could be built up to include young adults, as well.”

UTEC focuses on young adult justice reform, arguing that young people are disproportionately represented in adult corrective facilities, partially due to their incomplete brain development. Foster said he was excited to hear the candidates talk about racial and criminal justice reform in the first debate, though he wants more detailed discussion on those issues.

“We’ve heard from both the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign that there is an appetite for criminal justice reform, but we think there is more opportunity for — and we haven’t heard it yet in the debates, but we think there’s a good opportunity for this to come up — this conversation about how we are treating young adults that are aging out of the juvenile justice system, ending up in the adult system, and recidivating at a high rate,” Foster said.

Higher education

On the topic of older adolescents, Clinton also proposes making college debt-free for students attending their in-state public universities. All community colleges would offer free tuition under her proposal. People currently paying back student loans would be allowed to refinance loans at current rates, interest rates for student loans would be cut and states would have to more heavily invest in higher education. Limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers would pay for these policies.

Trump’s campaign national co-chair and policy advisor Sam Clovis told Inside Higher Ed the Republican nominee believes the government should stay out of the student loan system in favor of private banks, but agrees with Clinton that colleges should share a greater financial risk in unpaid student loans. Clovis said Trump is against debt-free public universities and free community college proposals.

Also affecting college students is the issue of campus sexual assault. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, women ages 18 to 24 are at the highest risk of sexual assault compared to all other age groups.

Clinton is in favor of campuses offering comprehensive support to sexual abuse survivors, such as counseling and critical health care that is confidential, comprehensive and coordinated. Her proposal calls for increasing prevention efforts by offering sexual violence prevention education programs in colleges and secondary schools.

Trump supports the Republican Party platform on this issue, which was approved during the Republican convention in Cleveland. It states that sexual assault reports should be investigated by civil authorities and prosecuted in court, rather than by school officials.

VP nominees on children’s issues

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, the almost four-year Indiana governor, negotiated the state’s On My Way Pre-K pilot program. Later in 2014 he barred Indiana from applying for $80 million in federal funding to expand its effect. Pence said then that he was preventing federal intrusion from entering the program. He altered course on this issue in June, writing a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services expressing interest in federal funding to expand the program. Pence authorized the hiring of 113 new Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) caseworkers in 2016, after the American Civil Liberties Union sued DCS on behalf of overloaded caseworkers. One case manager was representing 43 abused children, when the state law set a maximum of 17, according to ACLU.

Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine helped expand state preschool programs when he was governor of Virginia. As a current Virginia senator, he introduced a bill in 2015 to expand nationwide access to pre-kindergarten programs and supported the Every Student Succeeds Act, which decreased focus on standardized testing and allowed states more room to set educational policies and authorizes federal funding of out-of-school-time programming through the Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

No matter who is elected, John Gomperts, America’s Promise Alliance president and CEO, hopes the next president will work across political lines to address issues such as the need to increase high school graduation rates.

“Whatever is said and not said in course of this campaign, I hope that whoever becomes president will work to bring everyone together to try to create the conditions under which every young person in America has a real chance to succeed.” Gomperts said. “We need to provide support for young people, especially young people who find themselves in troubling circumstances.”

By Allen Fennewald

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