22 Oct

Imagine a political campaign that actually was about children

Elections, we’re always told, are about the future.

They’re just not usually about the people who are going to live there.

The advocacy group Children First for Oregon wants to change that. This year, and for election years in the future, it’s trying to raise the profile of children in Oregon elections, and make it clear to candidates that people with play dates ought to be political players.

“The political system responds to pressure,” says Tonia Hunt, executive director of Children First. “We don’t ask kids to our candidates’ forums. We need to ask questions for the kids who can’t be there.”

And Children First has some suggestions on what to ask.

Its website features an Oregon Children’s Election Center, including questions ranging from “What do you consider the primary pathways out of poverty for a family with children?” to a request for candidates’ ideas on Oregon’s hemorrhaging foster care issues.

Hunt concedes that a children’s agenda, and the people who’d like to push one, could use a little more focus. “There are 120 groups working on children’s issues,” she counts. “We’ve ended up differing on ways and confusing our message.”

To go with the new effort, Children First has some new numbers, from this month’s 2014 Oregon County Data Book. In addition to some familiar depressing statistics – a majority of Oregon schoolchildren now qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, and 27 percent of Oregon children are food-insecure – the report points out persistent gaps in educational achievement at all levels between white children and Oregon’s rising percentage of minority children. And although a full 20 percent of Oregon minority kids live in Multnomah County, the opportunity gap there is among the widest in the state.

The statistics in the report are very predictable given Oregon’s lethal combination of institutional incompetence and institutional racism,” says Ron Herndon, head of Albina Head Start. “It is routine for highest level staff in state and local government decision making bodies to have had no successful professional experience in ameliorating the conditions of Oregon’s most vulnerable and worst served children: Black, Native American and Hispanic.”

But this year, as part of its election effort, Children First serves up some statistics prepared a different way, arranged by House and Senate district. These numbers are a reminder that as daunting as Oregon’s statewide children’s numbers are, it has areas where things are considerably worse – something Hunt thinks might make for interesting discussions at campaign events.

Statewide, Oregon’s child poverty rate is a scary-enough 22 percent, with 31 percent of kids getting some form of state assistance. In House Speaker Tina Kotek’s North Portland district, 30 percent of kids live in poverty, with 42 percent getting some help.

Explains Kotek, “That’s parents not sending their kids to camp, not being able to have them in sports, not sure they won’t need a food box to feed them.”

Knowing that the state won’t be able to support every kid – but trying to make sure that minority and at-risk kids get their share – Kotek hopes to find $250 million next session. That’s $150 million for statewide full-day kindergarten – which a previous legislature has already promised – and $100 million for employment-related day care and early intervention.

House Republican leader Mike McLane’s district, stretching southwest from Prineville in the geographic center of the state, there’s a 25 percent rate of child poverty, and 39 percent of kids get some help.

Kotek and McLane should have a lot to talk about.

Hunt, of course, thinks it’s something for all candidates to talk about – especially during election campaigns.

In politics, “It comes down to money or work,” she points out. “I don’t have a way to collect a part of every child’s allowance, so we have to go to the voters willing to stand up on these issues.”

Over time, Hunt hopes to set up a more focused political children’s advocacy movement, the kind that would make endorsements and maybe even apply some cash. In a state with an above-average child poverty rate, recently rated by Feeding America as the state with the hungriest children, with a bleak four-year high school graduation rate, there should be a lot to talk about.

Elections, we’re always told, are about the future. But it seems a long time – before the Great Recession, before 9/11, before the tech bubble popped, before Measure 5, before the timber collapse – since Oregon could really think about more than survival.

But the future always shows up.

And as the people who are going to be living there might put it, ready or not.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian 10/19/14.

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