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Diane Whitmore SchanzenbachBack to OpinionDiane Whitmore Schanzenbach

Naming a child policy czar

Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s term, 14 successive U.S. presidents have appointed so-called policy “czars” as high-level officials who oversee particular policy arenas.

Generally these czars’ appointments do not require Senate approval. The number of these mission-specific officials has increased under recent presidents:  Bill Clinton appointed eight, George W. Bush appointed 33, and the Obama administration has so far appointed 38.

Such high-level, influential individuals cover a wide range of areas, from automobiles to weatherization. Despite the ever increasing importance of child policy, no president has ever appointed a czar to coordinate this issue. The time has come. In the second Obama administration, which begins next week, the President should appoint a Child Policy Czar.

The administration would be well served to appoint an expert who can elevate and coordinate policy across different agencies. Under the current system, important consequences of policy changes are not adequately weighed by agencies when the outcomes fall outside of their more narrow charge. Therefore, an ideal candidate should understand child development and bring a broad vision of how policies will impact children, determining whether policies augment or diminish long-term effectiveness.

I can name a dozen qualified academics, most of whom are mothers, who would fit the bill (and bring a little bit of necessary diversity to the second term White House). As a mother myself, I see the benefit of a child policy czar personally, practically and ideologically.

All our children need someone at the top to watch out for their needs.Twenty four percent of the U.S. population is younger than 18 years old, and our future economic security depends in large part on our current investments in their skills and health. Economists estimate that because so many of our children grow up in poverty, the U.S. economy loses about $500 billion per year in output, or the equivalent of nearly 4 percent of GDP.  Tough policy decisions lie ahead for Congress, such as cuts to social programs and the pending re-authorization of No Child Left Behind and the passage of the Farm Bill. These policies will have widespread, and often unintended, impacts on the lives of American children.

For example, the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind legislation holds schools accountable for the test score performance of their students. My own recent study has shown that this pressure leads schools to implement policies, such as squeezing recess or gym class, that increase childhood obesity. This is bound to have negative long-run consequences for the nation’s health and military readiness, areas non-traditionally the focus of the Department of Education.

On the other hand, many policies set by other agencies have been shown to have impacts on students’ educational outcomes. Access to health care through public health insurance programs aimed at low and moderate- income families improves not only children’s health but also their test scores. Additionally, income support programs received by children’s families such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Food Stamp program have been shown to improve children’s educational attainment.

Another recent study from Columbia University found that the expansion of the E-Z Pass electronic toll collection system reduced traffic congestion and thereby pollution near highway toll plazas, improving the health of newborn babies in nearby areas. Studies have shown that these health improvements will continue to pay dividends across a variety of areas over their lifetimes.

The current policy setup encourages policy makers to primarily consider outcomes  directly related to their myopic interests, therefore ignoring these spillover effects. In the cases when policy makers ignore positive benefits such as improved health and educational outcomes, it suggests we are likely under-investing in these areas.

Given the current environment of cutting programs to lower debt, what is more worrisome is that the actual long-term costs of these program cuts are likely much larger than the short-run and narrowly defined cost estimates imply.

The cost effectiveness of a child policy czar is obvious; she or he will have more than enough work to keep going around the clock.

The first to consider are fiscal reform debates. While the big-ticket items are clearly Medicare and Social Security, there is still plenty of discussion of cuts to social programs affecting children such as Medicaid and Head Start. A child policy czar should publicize that $1 “saved” will actually cost several times more in adulthood in higher future health care costs, criminal activity, and reduced economic output.

Secondly, the farm bill requires attention. Proposed cuts to the Food Stamp Program deeply affect our nation’s children. A new study shows that childhood exposure to this program improves adult health and economic outcomes. We should also be asking: Are we subsidizing the right kinds of foods, or are there aspects of this bill that contribute to childhood obesity?

Finally, when Congress finally takes on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a broader child policy advocate can champion reforms for all kinds of unintended consequences of the school accountability policy.

This act has been shown to narrow the curriculum on math, reading and science and away from other academic subjects and “soft” skills. Additionally, it has resulted in both the highest and lowest achieving students receiving less teacher attention, and it has even spilled over to worse health outcomes through increased childhood obesity and more (probably inappropriate) prescriptions for ADHD medication. The bill can be improved to realign these incentives.

To safeguard the future economy, the nation would be well served with the appointment of a dedicated child policy czar. Failure to elevate child policy to the federal discussion level  it deserves increases the likelihood that we make policy changes that damage children not only today, but through their adult lives.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is an associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She studies the impacts of public policies on children.