CHILDREN FIRST

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A century ago, Teddy Roosevelt had the wisdom and foresight to bring together a disparate array of experts and advocates at the White House to discuss the condition and needs of America's children and what government, businesses, and nonprofits could do to make the lives of the nation's youngest citizens better.

The 200 participants in this first White House Conference on Children focused on how to improve the lot of institutionalized and neglected children and strengthen poor families, resulting in state legislative action across the country and the creation of the Children's Bureau, the first federal agency to monitor children's welfare.

Every 10 years, every president in power through Richard Nixon convened a White House Conference on Children, bringing together ever-larger numbers of experts and interested parties, yielding a wealth of proposals and new policies adopted by federal and state governments and embraced by large parts of the private and nonprofit sectors.

These high-level gatherings not only sparked important national discussions of children's well-being and needs but also legislation as varied as ending child labor, reducing child and maternal mortality, supporting research on children's physical and emotional development, enhancing spending on K-12 and postsecondary education, and bolstering efforts to improve children's health and nutrition.

But no children's confab has been held at the White House in nearly 40 years. The White House has held more expert extravaganzas than ever in recent decades, yet - shockingly - not since the baby boomers were kids has a president (and a Congress, which must authorize funding) made it a priority to organize a conference and lead a national discussion about America's children.

It's time. If, as we so often say, children are our future as a people and nation, why not bring together the greatest minds, parents, those who work with children and thinkers of all political persuasions to discuss what America's priorities should be for the 70 million to 75 million Americans under 18?

There is no shortage of issues to fruitfully address. Elementary and secondary education are woefully inadequate in preparing children with the knowledge and skills for life, as a library full of studies have demonstrated. And, in our quest for higher math, science, and reading test scores, the arts, humanities and physical education have been slashed by embattled school administrators.

Poverty is more widespread among children than any other age group. The rise of divorce and out-of-wedlock births have radically affected the lives of almost half of America's children. Morals have been eroded and children have been threatened by the less-savory aspects of the Internet, Hollywood, and other corners of popular culture, which make violence, sex, and the debasement of others all too acceptable and accessible. And drug use remains widespread, despite generations of "wars on drugs."

While we have a national health-care crisis, partially addressed by the recent expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program and President Barack Obama's commitment to health-care reform, too many young Americans lack the decent care that should be universal in a rich society such as ours. Childhood obesity is at epidemic levels.

Like so much well-intentioned but Orwellian discourse in Washington, we talk proudly about "leaving no child behind," but we leave tens of millions behind all the time. Can't we get beyond sound bites and piecemeal fixes to take a comprehensive and careful look at how our children are doing and how the public and private sectors, child-welfare advocates and parents can make children's lives better?

The Rough Rider who stormed San Juan Hill, busted monopolistic trusts, created the national park system, worked to strengthen the U.S. economy, and signed legislation to make our nation's food and drugs healthier also had the time and intelligence to put children's welfare at the highest levels of America's policy agenda and public discussion. A hundred years later, we should honor him and do right by our children nation's youth by launching a serious, far-reaching, national discourse with a centennial White House Conference on Children hosted by President Obama.

What are we waiting for?

Andrew L. Yarrow, vice president and Washington director of Public Agenda and an adjunct history professor at American University, is author of "Forgive Us Our Debts: The Intergenerational Dangers of Fiscal Irresponsibility" and "100 Years of American Child Policy." His e-mail is ayarrow@publicagenda.org.

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