Health Care as a Children's Issue

Susan Bales
January 23, 2000

Health care is clearly on our nation's mind these days. President Clinton recently unveiled a 10-year, $110 billion proposal that would dramatically improve the affordability of and access to health insurance, and presidential candidates, too, are putting forth plans, making health care an important election issue.

For years, children's advocates have been working to get children's issues like health care viewed as a public problem with public solutions. But even though health care is getting more prominence in the political arena, voters don't necessarily link it to children—unless of course, they are prompted by a reminder of the 11 million children lacking health insurance in our country. Sadly, from what we know about public attitudes toward children in our country, this is no surprise.

The Media and Children's Issues
Advocates can use the media to promote awareness about issues like children's health. But first, we need to explore how the media depicts children in general and how that influences the way the public views the problems—and the solutions.

The Benton Foundation and the Coalition for America's Children have commissioned a body of public opinion research on children's issues. This research explores how adults see the challenges facing kids and families and the language they use to talk about it. The results demonstrate that although adults know that kids in our country need help, they are often at a loss as to what they can do about it.

The challenge in promoting children's health is not unlike the challenges facing other children's issues. Research on the way the media depicts children, like a study by Children Now, finds that news reports rarely connect children's problems to public policies. Coverage of children is limited to stories of young victims or perpetrators, and rarely do they provide the context of the social and economic situations that contribute to problems. Stories point to parents as the most likely solutions to a child's needs, while systemic reforms, public health remedies, and legislative responses are rarely considered.

Given this media representation, it is little wonder that children's issues like health care must fight an uphill battle to be deemed "public" in nature, appropriate for policy solutions as well as familial ones. Message development research concludes that the idea of the "bad or irresponsible parent" as the major stumbling block to child well-being is a deeply held conviction by Americans of all political persuasions. This idea can be tempered to some degree through persuasive discussion, and Americans can rally to supporting those parents who demonstrate that they are trying hard, working hard and therefore worthy. But overall, the outcome of a discussion about children's health, unless carefully considered, is likely to be volunteerism, health education, sporadic programming, and social marketing—not the kind of public solutions that children's advocates work toward.

In addition, this kind of persuasion does little to advance understanding of the need for systemic reforms and public policies to support children and families. And, if the problems are presented as uniquely those of poor and minority families, Americans will further classify the issue as related to welfare, broadly defined in the vernacular as the reluctance or inability to work and take responsibility for oneself and one's family. This assessment will further erode the support for policy solutions, as the need for appropriate values displaces any economic or social analysis.

Moreover, in a media environment that stresses negative news, it is often difficult for Americans to imagine solutions to such chronic problems as children's poverty, hunger and health. They are depressed and overwhelmed by the problems that impede children's progress and the seeming intractability of these problems. They do not understand what could be done to alleviate these problems and they most certainly do not understand how they personally could contribute to a solution that is beyond their own family's bounds.

Kids and Politics
At the same time, Americans feel that the country's public priorities are often out of kilter with their own values, and would prefer public investment in children over support for stadiums, the Starr report, foreign aid, and other "frills." Children's needs are basic, they say, and deserve attention. They are, however, cynical that, in a money-driven political system, politicians will pay heed, and suspect that any money allocated to children will never get to them.

Finally, the millennium connects powerfully to a sense of progress that Americans feel they have enjoyed, and they would like to "leave a legacy" behind of good works and social improvement, including creating better futures for the next generation. As Americans look to the future, they automatically look to children as its most visible and compelling symbol. Perhaps someday this will be apparent in candidates' platforms on health care and other issues as well.

More resources on kids and elections:

  • Kids and Politics
  • Getting Past the Rhetoric Children's issues continue to move up in the public agenda, and all candidates claim they're "for kids." Learn the reality behind the rhetoric candidates use and find out how to evaluate their messages in this article.


Susan Bales is the president of Frameworks Institute and the founding editor of Connect for Kids.