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On Capitol Hill, Addressing the State of the Child

From Guest Blogger Lisa Fine

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill usually talk about children in a specific context, such as education or health policy, but a hearing today—the first of four—focused on "The State of the American Child" in a big-picture way.

The Senate education committee's subcommittee on children and families is receiving testimony from a variety of experts who will examine numerous aspects of children's lives: their health, education, and family and community life.

At today's hearing, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who is subcommittee chairman, said he was planning to craft and introduce legislation to create a national commission on children to regularly and closely examine the needs of American families and identify solutions.

"There's a reason our kids get report cards in school," said Dodd, who is retiring after this year. "They help us clearly identify how we're doing. Only by assessing honestly our progress—celebrating our successes and acknowledging our failures—can we improve it."

At the standing-room-only event, Dodd and the subcommittee heard from Alma Powell, chair of America's Promise Alliance, in Washington; Elaine Zimmerman, executive director of Connecticut Commission on Children, in Hamden, Conn.; Jack Lund, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater New York, in New York City, and Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University.

They brought up such issues as the need to improve the graduation rate, reduce childhood obesity and poverty, provide quality, affordable preschool and aftercare options for working parents, and make sure children have access to health care.

These have long been identified as challenges facing children and families, but are even more critical in light of economic conditions, Dodd said.

"We can't ignore the fact that this discussion is taking place in the wake of a brutal recession that will have a tragic impact on American families long after the economic indicators have turned around," Dodd said. "One in seven American children have an unemployed parent. One in five live in poverty, and an additional 5 million could be driven into poverty before this recession is through. One in four currently use food stamps, and half of all kids will use them at some point during their childhood. This recession will end, but its impact will endure."

He said the commission is needed to bring experts together to address the overall well-being of children.

"Just what we need, another commission," Dodd said jokingly. "I know people think rather than solve a problem, we form a commission. But this will be a way to strip out the [political] ideology from the debate."

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