I applaud President Obama for his State of the Union remarks this week for at least two reasons. First, he laid out the economic imperative of investing in the health and education of our children. Second, he called for specific policies that will make a concrete difference for children and families today and into the future — nationally and in Connecticut.
Wait, you say, the President did not give a speech about children. Perhaps not directly, but he did speak to the future of this country, which ultimately translates into a discussion of how to support the full potential of today’s children — the faces of our future.
This speech comes on the heels of press coverage of a recent report documenting that more than half of American public school children now live in low-income households. This figure is alarming not only because of what it says about the scope of hunger and need in America today, but also because of what it suggests about the likely ability of today’s school children to thrive and meet their full potential. The impact of poverty on child social, emotional and cognitive development is now well known. When half of our future lives in or near poverty, we are setting ourselves up collectively for a long slide from economic health.
We cannot hide from these stark facts even in the relative wealth of Connecticut. Today nearly a quarter million Connecticut children live in families with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Nearly one in 10 of our children live in communities marked by concentrated poverty. The majority of Connecticut’s most under-resourced schools are located in towns where they mostly serve students in poverty and children of color — towns that are unable to meet the full needs of children and families.
With the economy nearly fully recovered from the fallout of the Great Recession, we can and must heed the President’s call to action. Connecticut Voices for Children has released a policy agenda that calls for strategic investments consistent with the plan outlined by the President.
Knowing that children do well when families do well, we call for full restoration of the state Earned Income Tax Credit to 30 percent of the federal EITC, thus allowing working families to cover the basic needs of their children. We call further for a dependent care exemption, targeted at moderate income families. Taking care of children (or the elderly) demands significant time and resources. Families who are raising our next generation should benefit from a tax exemption that recognizes these costs.
President Obama has made access to education a pillar of his platform. In his first term, he focused on expanding access to early care and education. In last night’s speech, he focused on higher education. While Congress takes on those challenges, we can make real progress here in Connecticut by supporting efforts to create an integrated and streamlined system of early care and by working collectively to reduce the use of exclusionary school discipline, which takes children out of the learning environment and which disproportionately impacts children and youth of color.
Finally, President Obama turned to his defining health care legislation, which here in Connecticut has built on the gains we have made covering children, pregnant women and families in our HUSKY health program. Connecticut is entering a tough legislative session, marked by a looming budget deficit and likely calls for cuts to various programs and services that support children. We need to maintain current eligibility and benefits under the HUSKY program so that our children have access to quality health services, enter school ready and able to learn, and enter the workforce with the skills they need to succeed and lead.
Thank you, Mr. President, for launching this conversation at the national level. We commit to do our part to advance that same conversation here in Connecticut.
Ellen Shemitz is Executive Director of Connecticut Voices for Children.
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