Biden-Harris Administration Must Address Needs of Children, Young People

By Olivia Golden

The Biden-Harris Administration will enter office at a time of national devastation. The new team will face deaths, suffering, unemployment, skyrocketing mental health needs, and shrinking access to healthcare — with Black, Latinx, Native, and Asian-American Pacific-Islander communities bearing the brunt.

And their administration will face an urgency to respond to a crisis of racial justice arising from deep-seated and longstanding institutional racism, state violence, economic injustice, and policy failures. The pandemic and recession have spotlighted and worsened this crisis faced by communities of color. But COVID-19 didn’t create it.

Can the administration respond simultaneously to the immediate devastation and longer-run crisis? Yes — and it’s the best approach. I’ve found in turning around troubled agencies that immediate fixes are desperately needed — but they’ll never be enough. Leaders must make immediate responses while also building trust and momentum and, over time, generating investments and policy commitments for a bigger vision. In other words, the way to “Build back better” is to keep “better” in mind from the beginning.

For example, take the urgent need to respond to the pandemic’s and recession’s devastating impact on children and youth of color.

Children and young people — our nation’s future — are our most diverse generation. Compared to older generations, they suffered disproportionate poverty and injustice before COVID-19 — now brought to a full-blown crisis. Even before the pandemic, uninsurance among children was rising, losing ground after years of gains. Recent data show shocking levels of food insecurity among families with children — four in ten among Black and Latinx families — along with increasing poverty. Young adults of color, who have repeatedly experienced unemployment rates several times those of older adults, now see rates upwards of 50%, along with persistent lack of health and mental health access despite traumas from racism and police violence.

Because these failures undercut children’s healthy development and young people’s futures, we have no time to lose. But we must be fast and ambitious. Restoring the next generation’s future requires expanding health, mental health, and nutrition access; promoting pathways to good jobs and more stable economic supports; repairing systems that support young people and families, including child care and postsecondary institutions; and directly advancing racial and immigrant justice and eradicating structural barriers.

It also demands much bigger changes that build from immediate to visionary.

Take just one part of the economic solution: job benefits giving workers a stable living. The emergency paid leave provisions enacted by Congress end this month. We must expand and renew them and fix the Trump administration’s regulations excluding millions of workers from this crucial help — for example, workers in healthcare and small businesses. These legislative and regulatory exclusions have hit the next generation hard, because young workers and women of color, especially mothers, disproportionately hold essential jobs that can’t be done from home — forcing them to choose between their health, their child’s well-being, and their paycheck.

While that immediate step gets help to hard-hit families, it’s just a beginning. Economic justice requires a permanent, far more generous paid leave program. It also requires subsidized jobs, affordable child care, stable and secure income supports such as unemployment insurance, and more.

Getting there means a clear commitment to sustaining momentum for long-term change. For example, committing to the next steps early, even if Congress isn’t ready to pass them. It means creating new mechanisms for centering the voices of workers, parents, and young people, along with new places in government — new offices or “czars” — positioning their issues front and center.

That’s not a new strategy — we’ve used it many times to effect big change. In fact, the agency I used to run, the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was created in 1912 as the Children’s Bureau to serve just this purpose of focusing public attention. It helped create energy through reports and stories for then-revolutionary child labor laws.

And as in that example, creating momentum means pulling back the curtain and telling the full story of damage — in this case, the harm done to young workers and families — whether through reports, hearings, White House conferences, or a national commission. Building energy for a turnaround requires getting the bad news out early and fully, so everyone sees how big the hole is and what’s required to fill it.

The crisis is now. So, we have to get started right away. But we also cannot trade urgent against big. With the right strategies, we can do both: get started and go big.

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CLASP

A national nonpartisan organization dedicated to public policies that strengthen families and create pathways to education and work