Florida Childrens' Campaign: The Year of the Child

Roy Miller
February 11, 1999

Florida is in the throes of a political transformation—from a state that hasn't paid enough attention to its children to a state trying in earnest to reduce the huge debt of neglect amassed from years of shamefully inadequate resource allocation to the needs of children and families.

Children received so much attention during the 1998 session of the Florida Legislature that political observers throughout the state dubbed it the "Year of the Child." Legislative action included:

  • $79 million to provide services to 23,900 of the 25,000 children on waiting lists for subsidized child care;
  • $75 million to match federal dollars to expand the Florida Healthy Kids insurance program to 250,000 of the 500,000 children falling through the cracks of the health care system;
  • $29 million to add nearly 200 child abuse investigator positions and a training/professional competency program to a child protection system presently burgeoned with staggering caseloads;
  • $10 million to support Healthy Families, a model program with an impressive track record of child abuse prevention; and
  • $70 million for an innovative advertising campaign designed by teens to target teens to reduce tobacco use.

The list goes on.

"It's encouraging to see that children's issues are becoming politically popular in Tallahassee," Governor Lawton Chiles commented recently. Chiles left office in November 1998 after serving two consecutive terms, the maximum allowed by the state's constitution. "It's clear lawmakers can't go home and run for re-election without taking real action to promote our children's health, education, and families."

There are other clear signs of political transformation in Florida beyond gubernatorial leadership and legislative appropriations:

  • Today, 30 of every 100 Florida voters say children are their top priority for political attention, a gain of 25 percentage points over the past five years.
  • Candidates are talking about kids. In fact, contenders for statewide elected office are squaring off on children's issues early in their campaigns. They realize they can't win without a commitment to children and families.
  • Political columnists are reporting the change. George Will, in a national column filed from South Florida, reflected on the trend away from the politics of manly rigor and self-reliance communicated during the 1994 elections. This year's campaigns are using words such as "nurturing" and "caring" to touch the hearts and souls of Florida voters.

The change is more than a one-way street, going well beyond a new responsiveness from elected officials and candidates. Advocates, too, are finding new ways to plan strategy and work together, realizing that cooperation, not competition, will result in increased appropriations for a broader range of children's initiatives. The days of the "circular firing squad"-when single issue advocates loaded their own ammunition but shot at each other-are gone.

The Way We Were
It wasn't always this way. In fact, Governor Chiles says that as recently as three or four years ago he had great difficulty convincing elected officials and business leaders that the health and well-being of children are vital to the state's long term interests.

 

This remarkable political change also was noted in a April 12, 1998 column ("Kids' Advocates Unite To Create Powerful Lobby: Children's Issues Become a Strong Force in Politics") by Florida's foremost political journalist, Tom Fiedler of The Miami Herald. Fiedler observes the link between newfound voter attention to children's issues and improved legislative action, attributing the change to the work of the Florida Children's Campaign, an affiliate of the Florida Center for Children & Youth.

Says Jack Levine, Center Executive Director, "The light bulb of responsiveness did not magically flick on after years of public awareness activities. Children are more important this year because voters and political contributors are putting children's issues at the top of their priority lists."

His thoughts are echoed by other children's experts, such as Susan Muenchow, Executive Director of the Florida Children's Forum, a child care advocacy group. "The Florida Children's Campaign has been successful in focusing voters on the practical benefits of child care. Doors are opening to me in the state capitol because the constituents of our elected officials are talking about children."

Florida's improvements are not only reflected through appropriations and political intentions, but also in hard facts, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation's National Kids Count report. In the national ranking released May 5, 1998, Florida had climbed from the 48th spot to 44th, still far below the state's potential, but a significant step forward.

These outcomes and the gradual transformation in political attitude did not come about by accident. Rather, they're the result of a multi-year, strategically planned campaign using materials and ideas created jointly by the Coalition for America's Children, the Benton Foundation, and the Florida Children's Campaign.

 


Roy Miller serves as the Campaign Director for the Florida Children's Campaign.



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