By Rob Thompson, Senior Policy and Communications Advisor
Each year, our elected representatives have an extraordinary opportunity to use public policy to improve the lives of children and families in North Carolina. By expanding access to high-quality health care, strengthening our schools and early learning opportunities, and growing economic opportunity, policymakers can change a child’s life trajectory. Conversely, policy decisions can also create or worsen barriers to opportunity and success.
This session legislators took some positive, incremental steps toward safeguarding child well-being, particularly in the areas of child health and safety. They addressed unsanctioned transfers of child custody, which often lead to child trafficking; they approved funding for two new crisis centers for children with mental health emergencies; and, they added a modest number of slots to the child care subsidy and NC Pre-K programs.
While we applaud those actions, they are insufficient to meet the growing challenges faced by North Carolina’s children and families, who are too often living in communities without access to health care, quality education, and economic opportunity.
In 2016, legislators failed to close the health insurance coverage gap, leaving thousands of parents without health care and vulnerable to devastating medical debt, and they didn’t address our state’s ineffective policy of charging all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, which undermines the future prospects of youth working to get their lives on track. These are two examples of high-impact policy solutions being left on the table with no action.
The legislature also implemented additional, counterproductive cuts to state revenue. With a shrinking revenue base, well-meaning attempts to invest in children’s priorities, such as early education, child welfare, and health, are bound to fall short. For instance, the legislature added 260 slots to the child care subsidy program, which is only 1.2 percent of the current waiting list of 21,784 children.
Moving forward, we call on legislators to think big when it comes to our state’s children and invest in the research-based supports that will ensure our children’s healthy growth and bright futures.
For children to thrive, they need to get off to a strong start; they need to be healthy; they need nurturing families and communities; they need a high-quality education; and, they need economic opportunity. Public policy is a powerful tool we can use to make progress toward these goals. Closing the health insurance coverage gap, reforming our criminal justice system so that children aren’t charged as adults, and expanding our early education investments in Smart Start, child care subsidies, and NC Pre-K are all research-based policies that legislators could implement during the next legislative session that would have a profound impact on children. While some leaders may claim that that North Carolina can’t afford these policy solutions, we suggest that North Carolina taxpayers are already paying to address and remediate the poor outcomes our children experience when we don’t invest in their healthy development.
We understand that achieving these goals is long-term proposition that will demand vision and dedication from citizens and policymakers. NC Child is committed to articulating that vision and providing elected officials with the data and policy solutions to make North Carolina the best place to be and raise a child. We hope lawmakers will follow our lead in the years to come and make children their top priority.