Legislators Should Do More To Focus On Children, Advocates Say

File photo of Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

Child advocates on Wednesday called on candidates and elected officials to place more of an emphasis on children’s issues during this year’s elections and in next year’s state legislative session.

At a press conference at the Capitol, Rich Huddleston, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families(AACF), said one in four children in Arkansas lives in poverty and the state ranks 44th in overall child well-being, according to the Annie E Casey Foundation.

However, candidates aren’t talking about children’s issues because children don’t have political power.

“Kids don’t vote,” he said. “They don’t give campaign contributions and they don’t host political fundraisers for candidates or political parties.”

Huddleston said tax cuts being proposed should not impact programs for young people and should be targeted to lower-income families. He said his organization supports an earned income tax credit, which is a tax credit or refund given to lower-income working families. He said his group is looking for a legislative sponsor. Huddleston said AACF is supporting the measure while opposing other proposals it expects would mostly benefit wealthier taxpayers.

“It’s going to be tough to have another couple of hundred million dollar tax cuts that go to upper income taxpayers and at the same time fund things that we know would directly help either kids or low-income families,” he said.

Huddleston said his organization also supports a large increase in funding for pre-K programs as well as more upfront money for community-based juvenile justice programs rather than spending money on detention, which is an expensive proposition.

During the press conference, Huddleston was joined by Scott Tanner, general ombudsman for the state’s Public Defender Commission, who said the estimated costs for housing a juvenile offender in the state’s residential program is $47,000 for nine months, not counting school or medical expenses. Residential programs serve an average of 500 youth per year.

Patty Barker, who leads the No Kid Hungry Campaign for the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, said one in five Arkansas households faces food insecurity, ranking it second worst in the nation, while one in four children, nearly 200,000, faces food insecurity, which is fifth worst in the nation. That number has been reduced by 15,000, which improved the state’s ranking from worst in the nation in 2010.

“What works? Programs and partners working together with a common goal to ensure that kids stay healthy and active and have access to sufficient nutrition year-round,” she said.

Laveta Wills-Hale with the Arkansas Out of School Network challenged legislators to fund the Positive Youth Development Act, which was passed in 2011 to create a dedicated funding stream for after school and summer programs but has never been funded.

Also speaking was Elizabeth Scudder of Alma, owner of Western Arkansas Childhood Development, a pre-K provider, and president of the Arkansas Early Childhood Association.