Children's causes shape agendas in state capitols

From child care to foster care, lawmakers push issues that make thisYear of the Child.

Take a look at the activity in the hallways of the 50 state capitols and one strong theme emerges: kids. From child care to foster care to health care, legislators are scrambling to boost spending and revamp the way their states help children.

In statehouses, it seems, 1999 is the Year of the Child. New York, for instance, is considering the biggest one-year increase in child-care funding in its history.

Arizona's governor wants to double the size of the state's child-abuse-prevention program.

And California may add a child-support czar to go after deadbeat parents.

The driving force behind many such plans is the desire to protect kids from being hurt by welfare reform. But other forces are converging, too - a new national emphasis on early-childhood development, business executives clamoring for better education, and the sudden influx of money from tobacco-company settlements.

Targeting children is "a politically acceptable way to help poor families," explains Cynthia Craft, editor of StateNet Capitol Journal in Sacramento, Calif. "No one would suggest that the child go out and get a job." And bipartisanship runs strong on these issues because "Democrats always bring up the human services and Republicans have to counteract their image as bullies by exposing their warm, fuzzy sides."

Indeed in Arizona, where the late conservative icon Barry Goldwater still looms large, Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull is proposing to add $10 million in child-care subsidies for working families and $3 million to Healthy Families, a child-abuse-prevention program. She would also revive the state's prenatal-care program at a cost of $1 million.

And she's not alone: Legislators are rushing to revamp the foster-care system by shortening the time it takes to get the state's 7,000 foster children into permanent homes.

One lawmaker even wants to create a new license plate with proceeds going to child-abuse-prevention programs.

Why now?

But it's not just a desire to show their "warm, fuzzy" sides that's driving legislators to help children.

For one thing, like many states, Arizona will soon start getting its annual check from the tobacco companies - $100 million for each of the next 25 years.

Also, the notion that the first few years of a child's life are crucial to later success has gained national prominence - and acceptance across the political spectrum. Forums such as last year's so-called White House conference on the brain have put great emphasis on this field of early childhood development.

In the end, actions such as boosting child care fit nicely into a conservative philosophy, says Carol Kamin, head of Children's Action Alliance, an advocacy group in Phoenix. Conservatives rationalize that, "We want people to work, so we'll take care of their kids," she says.

In Wisconsin, the state's nationally acclaimed welfare reforms have been successful, and, as in many states, lawmakers are looking for ways to make sure kids aren't harmed by them. Since reforms began, welfare rolls have dropped from 98,000 to 9,000.

Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson now wants to use $20 million in federal welfare-reform money to start a "community youth" fund - a social program with a capitalist twist. It would divide the funds among the communities that develop the best plans to keep at-risk kids in school and out of trouble. Like many states whose rolls have shrunk, Wisconsin has leftover welfare money and is looking for new ways to spend it.

States are also spending federal money aimed at protecting working-class children who don't have health insurance. The funds were allocated in 1997 as a part of President Clinton's small-scale efforts to boost health care after his universal health-care plan was defeated.

Expanding health care

Since then, every state except Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming has either expanded its child health-care program or started a new one. Experts say this will bring care to between 2 million and 2.5 million uninsured kids - although some 7.5 million will still be uninsured. In Texas, for instance, some lawmakers want to spend an extra $151 million per year on child health care. The state would get $3 in federal matching funds for every dollar it spent on the proposed Children's Health Insurance Program.

But states are also motivated by more than just federal money: 27 of them are under court order to reform their child-welfare agencies, which many are doing aggressively.

In Texas, there are plans to boost spending for state workers dealing with child abuse. The number of children in the state who died because of abuse or neglect jumped 71 percent last year, and a state court has criticized state-abuse investigations.

Not only that, the message from business executives and voters that education needs to improve is getting through. Governors seem to be more focused on schools than ever. Michigan's John Engler, for example, threatened to take over Detroit schools if they're not turned around.

Significant strides

So will all these reforms go far enough in protecting the nation's children? Some child advocates are surprisingly satisfied.

Donna Lawrence, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund in New York wishes Gov. George Pataki's plan to boost the state's child-care funding by $120 million included more money for building day-care centers and training staff. But overall, she says, "It goes pretty far."

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