Colin Powell Can Once Again Put Kids Atop the U.S. Agenda

Posted November 19, 2004 at 5:19pm

As much as Colin Powell’s departure is a loss to the State Department, it may be a gain for the nation’s children, who need special assistance amid stingy budgets. [IMGCAP(1)]

Realistically, Powell probably can’t get much more money spent on kids. But he can once again pioneer efforts to energize voluntary activity and try to get government money spent more efficiently at all levels.

And to make children a national priority again, he and his allies can educate adults and politicians about how it’s in their self-interest, and not just a humanitarian gesture.

Right now, the federal government spends a paltry $2,500 per American child, mainly for education and health programs, while it lays out more than $17,000 per capita on the nation’s seniors, mainly for retirement support.

Funds for almost all discretionary domestic programs, which include most programs for children and youths, are likely to be cut in the coming years as the Bush administration puts its top priority on defense, homeland security and deficit reduction.

In fact, in the Republican Congress, the slashing has already begun. Last week, it cut federal education spending for the current fiscal year to a level below the president’s own budget request. Special education for handicapped children, to cite one of many programs affected, is likely to get less than half of the $1 billion increase that Bush proposed.

In addition, as it moved closer to leaving town for the year, Congress was on the verge of failing to restore $1 billion in unspent funding for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program that could have provided health coverage for some 200,000 low-income children in the next three years.

Enter Powell, who before becoming secretary of State was a champion of children and youths as a board member of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and founder of America’s Promise-The Alliance for Youth, a broad coalition of communities, agencies and volunteer groups around the country.

Powell got America’s Promise launched in 1997 with a first-ever domestic summit attended by all the nation’s living presidents (except for Ronald Reagan, who in his illness was represented by his wife, Nancy). The project attracted national attention for children’s needs until Powell took over at State in 2001. The board is still chaired by Powell’s wife, Alma.

On his travels as secretary, Powell often visited children’s projects overseas. Associates say he will renew his activity domestically when leaves office.

There’s lots of work to be done. Issues involving children and youths came up strikingly short during the presidential campaign and rank low on the next-term agenda for both Bush and Congress.

Bush talked frequently about his No Child Left Behind education program, and he intends to propose extending its standards-and-accountability requirements to high schools. And he has said he intends to make sure that more children eligible for SCHIP and Medicaid receive it.

But beyond that, there isn’t much on his agenda for the nation’s 8.5 million children who lack health insurance. Democrat John Kerry (Mass.), by contrast, proposed guaranteeing all children health insurance.

So, what’s to be done to get children onto the national agenda? What likely won’t work is traditional exhortation (that “children represent our nation’s future,” true as that is). Nor will making appeals on a purely humanitarian basis or trying to guilt-trip adults.

There are plenty of statistics to demonstrate need. Almost one in five children in America lives in poverty. The United States ranks 23rd in the world in infant mortality rates and 16th in low-birth weight rates. Child obesity rates have tripled in the past 20 years. National reading, math and science scores have been flat for a decade and are still below their 1970 levels.

The nation has lived with such numbers all too comfortably. So, it’s time Powell and his allies made adults take notice by showing how their own future is caught up in the future of children.

If the baby boom and post-boom generations are going to have adequate retirement benefits, for instance, that will depend on the productivity of present children.

If the United States is to maintain its standard of living in the face of low-wage, higher-tech international competition, then U.S. children will have to do better than to score 19th in math and 18th in science in international tests.

If the U.S. health system is going to be affordable, then children’s health has to improve, lest obesity lead to an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease.

The self-interest argument is this: Practically everything connected to the long-run well-being of America is tied up in the welfare of children.

Even foreign policy is affected, insofar as American children lack language skills — especially in Arabic — and have a dim understanding of other cultures.

Before asking the federal government for more money for children, Powell & Co. should try to help it figure out better ways to spend the $225 billion it currently spends, by breaking down barriers between the several departments that handle children’s issues, evaluating what programs work and encouraging bureaucratic cooperation.

The same applies for interaction between federal, state and local governments and voluntary agencies such as United Way and Boys and Girls Clubs.

Powell and America’s Promise might be able to convince the White House Office of Management and Budget to judge programs according to how well they satisfy the five goals for every child set by AP: the attention of a caring adult, a safe place to go after school, a healthy start in life, education and training to give them marketable skills, and an opportunity to serve others.

Abundant research, including an exhaustive 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates that children who benefit from the AP’s “five promises” are more likely than others to finish school, avoid teen pregnancy, forgo drugs and crime and attend college.

Powell deserves the nation’s thanks for his years of military and government service. If there were a Congressional Medal of Honor for interagency combat in Washington, he deserves to receive it. Now that he’s out of government, however, he may do even more for the nation’s future than when he was in.