Voices for Children: Rhetoric and Public Policy

Voices for Children: Rhetoric and Public Policy

by William T. Gormley

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The United States spends more on programs for the elderly than it does on programs that enhance child development and improve child welfare. Why has public policy neglected the development phase of young Americans' lives not only in substantive dollars spent, but also in program design and implementation? Noted child care and education policy expert William Gormley


The United States spends more on programs for the elderly than it does on programs that enhance child development and improve child welfare. Why has public policy neglected the development phase of young Americans' lives not only in substantive dollars spent, but also in program design and implementation? Noted child care and education policy expert William Gormley highlights the portrayal of children's issues in both the mass media and in public policymaking to explain why children have gotten short shrift. A key explanation is the limited mass media coverage of strong arguments in support of children's programs.

After documenting changes in rhetoric on children and public policy over time and variations across policy domains and government venues, Gormley demonstrates that some "issue frames" are more effective than others in persuading voters. In two randomized experiments, he finds that "economic" frames are more effective than "moralistic" frames in generating public support for children's programs. Independent voters are especially responsive to economic frames. In several illuminating case studies, in Connecticut, Utah, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, he finds that strong rhetoric makes a difference but that it is sometimes eclipsed by even stronger political and economic constraints.

Voices for Children offers a fresh perspective on raging debates over child health, child poverty, child welfare, and education programs at the federal and state levels. It finds some hopeful examples that could transform how we think about children's issues and the kinds of public policies we adopt.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Gormley's nuanced view of the broader policy environment highlights how policy frames are mediated by economic decline, fiscal constraints, public opinion, partisanship, and the political culture of states. Students of public policy, communications, and social work will benefit enormously from Gormley's contribution to the belated recognition in policy studies that discursive practices are critical to the policy making process. Summing Up: Highly recommended."—CHOICE

"Using a variety of research methodologies--including coding Congressional testimony, interviews with advocates and Capitol Hill staffers, case studies of state policy making, public opinion survey experiments, and more--Gormley looks at the use of various policy arguments in different policy domains and levels and branches of government across a 50-year time period. This multimethod approach provides a strong empirical basis to inform an understanding of how politicians, staffers, policy analysts, advocates, the media, and the American public frame children's policy, and it generates rich, timely, and valuable evidence that can be used by child advocates to develop stronger arguments in future debates over child health, child poverty, child welfare, and education policy."—Social Service Review

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Brookings Institution Press
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Voices for Children

Rhetoric and Public Policy
By William T. Gormley Jr.


All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8157-2402-5

Chapter One

Children: Beloved but Neglected

It must not for a moment be forgotten that the core of any social plan must be the child. Franklin Roosevelt, 1935

The condition of children in the United States is marked by a puzzling paradox: we view children very positively, but our public policies do not reflect that positive view. The federal government spends seven times as much on senior citizens as it does on children. Although state and local governments spend much more on children than on the elderly, all governments in the United States, combined, spend 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children. Not surprisingly, given this considerable disparity, children are more likely than the elderly to be poor.

Poverty among senior citizens has declined dramatically since the 1960s, while poverty among children has not (figure 1-1). In 2010, 22 percent of all children were poor, as opposed to 9 percent of senior citizens. The situation was even grimmer for minority children: more than a third of Hispanic children and 40 percent of African American children live in poverty. Recent statistics, which capture the effects of government safety net programs, are somewhat less alarming: according to the Census Bureau's supplemental poverty measure, the child poverty rate declines to 18 percent once social programs and tax deductions are taken into account. On the other hand, these same revised figures suggest that we have underestimated the near poor in our midst, including near-poor children.

If we look beyond income to specific social conditions, the situation facing many children is distressing. One of every ten children suffers from asthma, approximately 14 percent of all students have one or more learning disabilities, one in four children lives in a household that runs out of food, and one in four children is raised by a single parent—the highest rate of any industrialized country. Furthermore, one in four teen-aged girls has a sexually transmitted infection, one in three school-aged children is overweight or obese, and adolescents (aged twelve to nineteen years old) are much more likely to be victims of violent crime than are adults. Overall, child well-being deteriorated during the 1980s. It improved during the 1990s, but since then, although community engagement and social relationships indicators have improved, family economic well-being and health indicators have deteriorated. It is telling that only 25 percent of young people are qualified to serve in the military.

These statistics are worrisome not only because of what they imply for conditions experienced by children today but also because of what they portend when these children become adults. Numerous studies show that, as adults, people's earnings, crime rate, health, and mortality are influenced profoundly by their experiences as children: children who are overweight or obese are more susceptible to type 2 diabetes, asthma, and other diseases; abused and neglected children are more likely to experience depression and suicidal thoughts and more likely to engage in crime and substance abuse; and low-birth-weight children have lower test scores, educational attainment, wages, and probability of being employed as of age thirty-three. Children who grow up poor face a wide variety of adverse effects; specifically, economic deprivation before age five is associated with lower earnings and fewer work hours three decades later.

Children who grow up in poor families are far less likely to complete high school, and children who fail to complete high school earn substantially less ($260,000) over the course of a lifetime than those who graduate from high school. Poor children who do not attend a high-quality preschool are more likely to be arrested and more likely to have substance abuse problems later in life. Family structure also matters: growing up with a divorced or never-married mother leads to worse schooling outcomes and more behavioral and psychological problems as an adult. Adult males are more likely to die early if they were raised by a father and stepmother than if they were raised by both biological parents.

Despite these outcomes, the United States does not invest enough in its children, and this is especially true in comparison with government spending on the elderly. The spending gap between older and younger citizens is greater in the United States than in most other countries (although Greece, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Austria also tilt in that direction). In part, U.S. spending reflects the fact that many programs for the elderly are insurance programs, to which beneficiaries contributed earlier in life. But it also reflects societal values.

The United States is also less likely than other industrialized nations to adopt policies that assist children and families with children. Of twenty-nine advanced industrialized countries, only South Korea and the United States have no provisions for paid parental leave. According to UNICEF, the United States ranks twentieth of twenty-one rich countries in overall child well-being. Among thirty industrialized countries, the United States ranks twenty-second in preventing low birth weight, twenty-third in neonatal mortality, twenty-seventh in infant mortality, and thirtieth in relative child poverty.

In education, the evidence is similar. Tests of fifteen-year-olds in thirty-four OECD countries by the Program for International Student Assessment show that the United States ranks fourteenth in reading literacy, seventeenth in science, and twenty-fifth in math. U.S. students do about as well as students in Estonia and Poland. The U.S. high school dropout rate, compared to other industrialized nations, is worse than the average. Approximately one-fourth of all U.S. public high school students fail to complete high school on time or at all. The college graduation rate for adults ages twenty-five to thirty-four has slipped to sixteenth place among thirty-six developed nations. Unlike most industrialized countries, the United States has no children's allowance or family allowance.

In addition, America's children face an unprecedented financial challenge when they grow up, due to deficits and national debt levels that threaten the country's economic future. Federal spending in 2010 represented 24 percent of GDP, the highest level since World War II. At the same time, tax levels represented only 15 percent of GDP, the lowest level since 1950. U.S. national debt has increased dramatically, from 33 percent of GDP in 2001 to 62 percent of GDP in 2010. Without draconian reforms, it will escalate even higher. By 2025, if trends continue, federal revenue will be sufficient to cover entitlements and interest payments only; everything else will have to be borrowed. As then New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg noted in supporting recommendations from the cochairs of the President's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, "We are putting future generations in a terrible predicament, with few options and even fewer opportunities."

In many ways, it is a Catch-22 situation. If we spend more money on children and fail to raise taxes, then we raise the short-term deficit and the national debt, to the detriment of children today and tomorrow. Yet if we do not spend more money on children and think more creatively about children's needs, then their conditions are likely to worsen. Either way, it seems, children lose out.

Why We Neglect Children

There are several possible explanations for public policy neglect of children in the United States. First, and most obviously, children don't vote. Unlike senior citizens, who vote in record numbers, children cannot demand that politicians attend to their needs. Instead, they must rely on surrogates, including parents and advocacy groups. Many of these surrogates are clever, devoted, and resourceful. Unlike other advocates, however, they cannot mobilize those who stand to benefit the most from public policy reform.

This handicap is less critical in parliamentary systems, which make it easier for governments to enact legislation, but it is a big challenge in the United States, where divided government and polarized political parties make coalition building difficult. Thus while children can't vote in Great Britain or Canada either, this seems to be less of an impediment to the passage of prochild legislation. In contrast to the United States, Canada has a universal child care benefit for all parents with young children, and Great Britain has universal preschool for three-year-olds and four-year-olds. Thanks to a strong commitment by Tony Blair and the New Labour Party, Great Britain's child poverty rate has plummeted to the point where it is now half that of the United States. Differences in political systems help to explain these policy differences.

Second, although the American people have a soft spot for children, children are not unique in being positively constructed. When Shanto Iyengar exposed randomly assigned subjects to television news clips on poverty, featuring different individuals suffering from poverty, he found that respondents viewed children, elderly widows, and unemployed males in positive terms, attributing their poverty to societal causes; in contrast, respondents viewed single mothers (both adults and teenagers) in negative terms, attributing their poverty to individual failings. When Fay Cook and Edith Barrett asked a cross-section of Americans to assess several demographic groups in terms of deserving financial assistance, they rated the disabled elderly and the poor elderly highest, followed by poor children. Disabled adults, poor female family heads, and poor unemployed men received lower ratings. In short, children are generally viewed as deserving claimants, but so too are other groups in society. When attention and resources are scarce, as they often are, children must compete with other positively constructed constituencies for public support.

Third, the mass media devote a fair amount of attention to children and public policy (education, child health, and, to a lesser extent, child welfare), but mass media coverage has not galvanized the American public to support a strong children's agenda. Trends in New York Times coverage help to explain why. As figure 1-2 indicates, this newspaper's attention to children's issues has sometimes been substantial, as in 1997. However, the number of children's stories has declined since 1997. Coverage rebounded again in 2003 but declined after that. More generally, the absolute amount of mass media coverage of children's issues leaves something to be desired, when one considers that most big-city newspapers devote much less attention to children's issues than the New York Times. There may also be problems with the kind of coverage children's issues receive—for example, too many episodic frames that focus on a single person or event and imply individual responsibility, not enough thematic frames that provide more background information and imply social responsibility. According to Iyengar, episodic frames draw attention to the human interest aspects of a story rather than to the story's policy implications.

Fourth, Congress devotes a good deal of attention to children but frequently fails to act decisively in support of bold new initiatives that are likely to make a substantial difference in children's daily lives. Congress has devoted many hearings to children and public policy, averaging about a hundred per congressional session (figure 1-3). Many of these hearings concern elementary and secondary education, a subject of considerable interest on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. Congress has also enacted a good deal of children's legislation over the past four decades (see box 1-1). On the other hand, Congress has missed golden opportunities to transform the policy landscape in support of children. Occasionally, Congress has acted boldly, but the president has not. For example, during the Nixon administration, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act that would have established voluntary but universal child care throughout the country. President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill in December 1971, lamenting the bill's "fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability and family-weakening implications."

Fifth, while state legislatures have spent more money per capita on children than Congress has, they are severely constrained by constitutional requirements to balance their budgets annually. Some states, such as California and Colorado, face additional constraints on tax increases to finance worthy programs. While state and local government officials can borrow money, by issuing bonds, to meet their physical capital needs, they may not do so to meet their human capital needs. Apart from these constitutional and legal limitations, state and local public officials face intense political opposition to tax increases that are needed to finance children's programs. As a result, children's advocates at the state and local levels must often settle for incremental progress at best.

Sixth, the United States does not have strong government institutions explicitly designed to protect children. There is no cabinet-level department for children. Unlike ninety-three other countries, the United States does not have a national Youth Council. There is a Children's Bureau within the federal Department of Health and Human Services, but it has been transferred from one department to another over the years and is relatively small. The House of Representatives used to have a Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families (created in 1983), but it was abolished in 1993. By contrast, the Senate Special Committee on Aging, first created (as a temporary committee) in 1961, endures. The states are not much better than the federal government in their institutional arrangements. Only twenty-nine states have a children's ombudsman office or an office of child advocate. Only sixteen states have children's cabinets—organizations that promote collaboration across state agencies with jurisdictions over children's issues. Only twelve states have a state youth council. In contrast, all fifty states have a nursing home ombudsman.

In many ways, the deck is stacked against children in the United States. The country has a presidential system in which agreement between the legislative and the executive branches of government is necessary for significant policy change to occur. It has a federal system in which the level of government that focuses on children has to abide by constitutional constraints on spending, while the level of government that focuses on the elderly does not. The institutional arrangements to ensure that children's voices are heard are relatively weak. The general public has a soft spot for children, but it is easily placated by symbolic policies that do more to reassure than to solve the basic problems facing children. Under these adverse circumstances, the United States needs better arguments in support of children and children's programs than it has used in the past. Some features of the political system are relatively permanent and hard to change, but policy arguments in support of children can be changed for the better, if we know what works and if we resolve to do something about it.

Policy Arguments

The outcomes of debates over children and public policy depend in part on the policy arguments that are made in support of particular programs. Some arguments will be more persuasive than others, or more persuasive at a particular time, or more persuasive to a particular audience. This is not to diminish the importance of power, money, connections, and politics to the policymaking process. Despite these forces, policy arguments play a significant role in what transpires. The argument that African Americans deserve an equal opportunity to share in the American dream helped to shape the outcome of federal civil rights legislation. The argument that air and water pollution threaten our health and our planet's health helped to stimulate passage of federal environmental legislation. The argument that the poor need a hand up and not a handout helped to shape the outcome of state and federal welfare policy debates.

What exactly is a policy argument? According to Giandomenico Majone, "argumentation is the key process through which citizens and policymakers arrive at moral judgments and policy choices." This definition is instructive, because it highlights the importance of both value choices and public policy choices and the connection between the two. It does, however, neglect the importance of evidence, often a critical component of policy arguments. Thus I define a full-fledged policy argument as a statement that explicitly or implicitly connects values, evidence, and public policy choices.


Excerpted from Voices for Children by William T. Gormley Jr. Copyright © 2012 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

William T. Gormley Jr. is University Professor and professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University and codirector of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. He is the author of several books, including Organizational Report Cards with David Weimer and Bureaucracy and Democracy with Steven Balla.

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