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Public Statements

Fight for Our Children

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

I think there are at least four areas where every child in America should have the opportunity to have the full measure of our attention and our action. Certainly, health care--I will talk a little bit about health care tonight--and, obviously, nutrition, and preventing hunger is a huge priority; third, early learning, which I will speak of tonight as well; fourth, just basic safety.

If every child has at least those four, no matter what their circumstances, they will have a much better chance of succeeding and contributing to our economy than they would without our help. We can't do everything, but America can do a lot more than it is doing now as it relates to our children. As it confronts us as a challenge--what happens to our children--there are at least two sets of updates. One is the bad news--the numbers we see right now in the midst of a recession. The other side of the ledger is some good news, in terms of actions that have been taken and strategies that are in place to help our kids.

First of all, the bad news. Child poverty is on the rise, in large measure because of the recession. We know that a new study about the foundation of child development, released in June of this year, found that the poverty rate among children is 21 percent, up from 17 percent from before the recession in 2006. In just 3 years, going from a 17-percent child poverty rate to 21 percent--a stunning and disturbing increase in child poverty. This means 15.6 million children will be living in poverty in 2010. I come from a State where the population is roughly 12.4 million. That means this child poverty rate in America is bigger than the population of Pennsylvania, bigger than the population of New Jersey or Massachusetts. You could go on and on and add a State to that list. Very few States have double figure millions in terms of population. Yet we have a double figure million number for child poverty--15.6 million children.

That rate places the United States among the highest of its peer nations--the highest in the United States in 20 years. For those who say we don't need to keep going to get this recovery in full bloom and to have our economy fully recover, I would cite the child poverty rate as one example or one piece of evidence that tells us we have to keep going and recovering, and we have to keep pushing the economy out of the ditch so our poverty rate among children can come down. Half these children will be living in ``extreme poverty,'' defined as below 50 percent of the poverty line.

The recession is not some remote set of numbers on child poverty or unemployment or any of the other numbers we use to measure or describe the recession. There are some better ways to talk about it. Dr. Mariana Chilton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA--someone who I know to be a leader on child hunger issues and a real advocate and expert and passionate advocate for children--has said, among many things she has written and has said about our kids:

As to the children, the recession is in their bodies and in their brains.

Meaning, of course, that a bad economy has an impact on poor children that is physical in nature. It is not just some condition that is remote; it physically injures a poor child more than a child who is not poor. That is what the recession means to a child. Unfortunately, that is not the end of it. Even while the recession is injuring children physically, it is also limiting their potential, their brain development, which, of course, stays with them for the rest of their lives. So it is indeed a recession that injures them physically, their bodies, but also has an adverse impact on their brains, which stays with them forever.

Recent studies indicate child poverty can have these lingering effects. The Urban Institute found that 49 percent of children born into poverty go on to spend at least half their childhood in poverty. Children raised in poverty have worse outcomes than their counterparts in higher income families. Some of this is self-evident, I know. Some of it seems like the same analysis we have been hearing for years. But just imagine that. If you are born into poverty, chances are very high that you will spend at least half your childhood in poverty. The effects of that, the lingering, substantial effects of that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

The recession, for a lot of people, isn't just a set of numbers, it is a set of misery indicators, and a set of disturbing outcomes that will adversely impact our children for years and decades, unfortunately. That is some of the bad news as it relates to our children--poverty, lingering effect of the recession and a harmful and disturbing impact of the recession on our kids.

Is there any good news? Well, there is some. It doesn't balance completely the set of bad news as a set of adverse indicators. But one piece of legislative good news, as it relates to our kids, is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was passed what seems like a long time ago, in the early part of 2009. Throughout the recession, the Recovery Act has had a positive impact in a number of ways. Let me, just by way of background, walk through a couple data points.

According to a June of 2010 report by First Focus, one of our great advocacy groups in America for our children, we spend less than a dime out of $1 on children in any given Federal budget year. That is our Federal budget year after year. When you overlay what we spend on our kids, it is less than a dime out of $1. That is not something any of us should be proud about or satisfied with. We have to do a lot better than a dime out of $1 for our kids--or a lot better than less than a dime out of $1 for our kids. The Recovery Act, though, was more than twice as large as the children's share of the Federal budget. So spending on children was substituting for adding to what States were not or could not spend for children in the midst of the recession.

I wanted to go through the Recovery Act and highlight things as it relates to children and the impact on our families. I wish to mention quickly some other pieces of good news, which we will develop later. One is the Children's Health Insurance Program, which, we know, was reauthorized in 2009. When the reauthorization is fully implemented, in a matter of 2 or 3 years now, we will have 14 million children covered by the Children's Health Insurance Program--a substantial achievement, no doubt. We would not be covering 14 million children with health care without that program. It was enacted when President Clinton was in office, enacted with bipartisan support. It hasn't always gotten bipartisan support from our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, but on most days we have had a lot of support in both parties. Unfortunately, we have had to fight through Presidential vetoes in the last administration to get it reauthorized.

That is a piece of good news.

The Affordable Care Act--the health care bill--we tend to forget the positive impact that will have on children by making sure children's health insurance is protected, that we didn't go the way of, frankly, some people in both parties who wanted us to take a stand-alone, successful program, such as children's health insurance, and put it in the exchange. We didn't do that. It would have been a mistake, in my judgment, to put it in the exchange. That was good news. We didn't do that.

Even the expansion and improvements we made relating to Medicaid coverage of even adults obviously has an impact on children because a healthy adult will mean that our children are in better shape, in most instances.

The Child Nutrition Act I will mention briefly. Each of us in this Chamber gave a speech on how important it is to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act. I and others will speak about this later in the week. That is a substantial piece of good news, if we can get it through the Senate and get it enacted, to extend the great protections of that legislation to our children.

Let me go back to the Recovery Act. Here are some basic facts that are important. The Recovery Act has created or saved 3.5 million jobs, based upon an analysis by the Council of Economic Advisers. The act will meet the goal of creating or saving at least 3.5 million jobs. The jobs created will be in a range of industries, from clean energy to health care, with over 90 percent in the private sector. When we have that much of a positive development as it relates to jobs, that has a tremendous impact on our children. Job creation and economic recovery has a direct and significant impact on our kids. So the job creation number is very important for our kids.

Second, nearly 40 percent of the Recovery Act provides direct relief to working and middle-class families. The act includes about $230 billion in tax cuts for families, including a Making Work Pay tax credit for 95 percent of workers and their families. Obviously, when you provide that kind of a tax break for a middle-income family, that has a positive impact on children.

The vast majority of the remainder of the act is provided in State fiscal relief and investments that also benefit working families. For instance, the Recovery Act provided direct support to children and families in the form of tax credits and increased Federal payments for a variety of programs, such as the Child Care Development Block Grant Program, which we all know by one of the many acronyms we use here, CCDBG, and Head Start.

The Recovery Act, I argue--and I think the proof is irrefutable--has positively impacted children in creating millions of jobs; it positively impacted children as it relates to tax cuts for middle-income families; and, thirdly, in a direct way when it comes to child care and Head Start. There was tremendous support for both of those in the Recovery Act.

To give an example of what this means to real people in States such as Pennsylvania, people can now access programs to help families through this very difficult economic time. Families who have participated in Pennsylvania's Child Care Works program have benefited from Federal funding. I have one example of a single mother of two, Sarah Obringer, who is from Churchill, PA, Allegheny County. She was receiving assistance for her son to attend a quality child care setting while she was working. When her second child, a daughter, came along, there were no funds available, and her daughter was placed on the waiting list. So in this instance, you have one child in a quality setting and then another child, Sarah's daughter, was in another location. She had to drive to two separate locations in order to get her children the care she wanted for them. This was difficult because of the cost of gas, and she was unhappy her daughter's provider was not a high-quality provider such as her son's was. She was just hanging on, when she was told there was assistance available to place her daughter in the same program her son was in because of Recovery Act funding. Sarah said the following:

It truly is a relief to have both of them in the same safe, quality center. As a mom, it gives me piece of mind to be able to go off to work knowing my children are well cared for at the same place until I can pick them up together at the end of the day. It is easier on them because they are together, and it is easier on me.

So that is an example of where the Recovery Act for one mother and one family has had a positive impact, because of direct support that helps a State childcare program--in this case in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The Recovery Act funding for States to sustain and expand their Head Start in Early Head Start programs has also made a difference. Head Start, as many here know, is a national program that promotes school readiness for low-income children, financing their social, cognitive, and academic skills and finding nutritional and health services for children who need them. Early Head Start begins with prenatal services for pregnant women and continues working with the family until children are eligible for Head Start, usually at the age of 3.

Here is an example from Pennsylvania. Annette Jones' grandson attends an Early Head Start program--the Keystone Babies classroom. That is at the Franklin Child Development Center. Annette writes:

This program has been a true blessing to our whole family. Landon is learning so much. He interacts with other children and learns how to get along, through different activities and experiences. Landon's classroom offers so much more than traditional ``baby-sitting.'' Landon has grown so much. The teachers in the classroom are loving and kind. They know what each child needs. He has been referred to early intervention services, based on information gathered by his teachers. These services will provide extra support for Landon to be successful. I am very thankful for the Keystone Babies classroom, and I ask for continued funding and support for this much needed program.

So there is another example--in this case Annette Jones and her grandson Landon--of how one family is benefitting from not just Head Start itself and not just Early Head Start as a program but because of the increases to both programs in the Recovery Act.

As I mentioned before, health care reform itself has been very helpful for our kids. As I mentioned before, when we are providing access to health care to more than 30 million Americans--many of them women and many of them of childbearing age--you don't have to be a public policy expert or even a health care or child development expert to know that will have a substantial disproportionately positive impact on children.

I mentioned the Children's Health Insurance Program before and how the reauthorization of that--really the extension of that--will have a tremendous impact on our kids. We know insurers will also be prohibited under the new health care law from discriminating against children with preexisting conditions. That protection will go into effect for the first time in American history in September of this year.

For those who have talked about repealing the act, well, if you repeal the act, you are repealing that protection for our kids. So I think if you are advocating that, you should think a little bit longer, talk to your constituents about whether they want protection for children with preexisting conditions to go into effect and then to be repealed. I don't think there are many people in America who support that--Democrat, Republican, or Independent.

The Affordable Care Act will also include funding for evidence-based home visitation programs that provide new moms with the resources they need to raise healthy children and provide a stable home environment. We know President Obama has been a real leader when it comes to promoting not just the value of protecting our kids but also increasing Federal investment in this area. He has asked for investments in our kids that far surpass anything in recent history.

I was also gratified, as so many were last week, when the Appropriations Committee reported out a Labor, Health and Education bill that for fiscal year 2011 includes an increase of $1 billion for that program. I mentioned before the child care and development block grant; an increase of nearly $1 billion for Head Start--the program I mentioned before as well.

So getting those kinds of billion-dollar or so increases for Head Start and child care development block grants is critically important. And $300 million has been asked for by the administration for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which is a program that would help provide competitive grants to States to raise the bar for early childhood programs. It will encourage States to coordinate quality improvement activities across early learning stages, including childcare, Head Start, and prekindergarten programs. It will expand the number of low-income kids at high-quality programs and ensure that more kids enter kindergarten ready to learn and ready to succeed. States such as Pennsylvania, which have very good systems in place, will be rewarded for those initiatives over time.

When I speak about the appropriations bill, I want to note the great leadership of Senator Tom Harkin and his work as an appropriator and for his constant effort to help our kids. I know when we talk about these investments--as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks tonight--there is a belief that I and many people in both parties have that we have an obligation to do everything we can to make sure the bright light inside every child reaches the full measure of its potential. So even if a child has limitations, even if a child is born with a disadvantage, even if a child comes from a family who can't provide the kind of early learning or early care and education opportunities we would expect and hope every child could have, that collectively and in concert we have the systems in place, both public sector and private sector, to make sure the light inside every child, no matter where they live in America, is given the full measure of support and services that we can.

I believe it is a sacred duty, not just a set of programs that we support. It is critically important that the light inside every child reaches the full measure of its potential. I can't say we are there yet. I can't say we are there yet on early learning. We are making progress. I can't say we are there yet in terms of combating hunger and providing good nutrition, but we are making progress. I can't say that even on health care--even with all the great advancements on the Affordable Care Act for the country at large or the Children's Health Insurance Program. Even when we have full implementation, for example, of children's health insurance, there may be millions of children still without health care coverage.

I guess, finally, it would be safety. If there is a fourth area, it would be whether we are protecting our children from abuse and neglect. We have a long way to go there as well.

So it is important for us to point out the bad news, the challenges, the difficulties, and the nightmares, but it is also important to remind ourselves when we are making progress on early care and education and a whole range of issues that relate to children.

I have to say we have had a number of leaders over many years in the Senate from both parties, but there are very few who have contributed in the way the chairman of our Banking Committee has--someone I have served with both on that committee as well as one of the leaders on our Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. I commend Senator Dodd, who is here on the Senate floor tonight with us, for his work for three decades in standing up for children in good times, when the economy was booming, and in bad times, as we are living through now when the unemployment rate is high and the recession is crippling the ability of families to provide for their kids and difficult times for State governments to provide for our kids.

No matter whether it is a good economy or a bad economy, Senator Dodd has been fighting these battles year after year--literally, now, decade after decade. We are going to miss his voice, his leadership, his passion, and his effectiveness in getting legislation passed. But as I have noted for the public record and have told him personally, we will need him to come back and help us once in a while, even when he is not an incumbent Member of the Senate. We are grateful for his leadership. We take inspiration from that leadership, and I know his inspiration and his guidance will help us keep that bright light inside every child.

Mr. President, with that, I yield the floor.


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