What About the Kids? Conflict, Uncertainty Cloud Youth Issues in 2016 Election

The 2016 presidential election has been anything but conventional. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Republican Donald Trump have thrown out a wide range of policies with an even wider range of supposed facts backing them up. While the election is unlike any the U.S. has ever seen – with more heated rhetoric and theatrics than ever before – it is undoubtedly important.

The next president will influence economic, domestic and foreign policy that will impact nearly every demographic in America. Polls suggest that next president will be Clinton. The latest Quinnipiac poll from June 1 has her beating Trump by four points.

Youths have garnered a lot of attention in this election cycle, particularly over their involvement with and large support for Sanders. However, while some youth-related issues have been discussed throughout the campaigns, others have flown under the radar. While education and immigration have been debated, juvenile justice, child welfare and homelessness have barely been discussed at all.


Several issues cloud the education sector across America. Budgets have been slashed and debates rage over Common Core and public college affordability. But before getting into these issues and where the candidates stand on them, how many people are affected by public education policies?

Roughly 50 million students attend public primary and secondary schools, and approximately 13 million students are enrolled in public colleges or universities, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Slashes to public school budgets could mean fewer resources and opportunities for these 50 million students. Chicago Public Schools, which has about 600 schools educating roughly 400,000 students, cut $200 million from its fiscal year 2016 budget in an effort to close the $1.1 billion operating deficit, according to the CPS website.

While CPS is discouraging teacher layoffs, academic programming and student schedules will be changed due to the cuts, and the threat of a strike looms heavy in this city. Similar budget cuts are plaguing other school districts across the country, such as in Detroit.

Credit: AP

While Trump has vowed to cut government spending on education, neither Clinton nor Sanders have been particularly vocal on school funding, except voicing support for the Every Students Succeed Act – which calls for the federal government to play an expanded role in public school funding, including grants for library books and textbooks, special education centers and scholarships for low-income college students.

In addition to federal, state and local fights over school budgets, a fierce political battle is brewing over Common Core. The program prescribes standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy that mandate what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each school year.

Critics have argued that teachers are forced to tailor their curriculums to standardized tests rather than what is actually important for students to learn. Additionally, since federal funding is heavily reliant on these test scores, opponents argue it is a way for the government to hold schools hostage.

Advocates claim that Common Core raises the standards for education, improves the ranking of the U.S. national education system around the world and increases cohesion among various states’ education systems.

States can choose whether or not to adopt the standards, with 42 states and the District of Columbia complying and 8 states abstaining. Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Indiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and Nebraska have all refused to adopt the standards.

Trump has blasted the initiative, calling it education handed down from Washington and a “disaster” and vowing to get rid of it if elected president. Clinton has a track record of support, while Sanders has not endorsed nor opposed Common Core, but has voted against anti-Common Core amendments to legislation in the U.S. Senate, where he has served since 2006.

Moving into higher education, one of the most public debates has been around the affordability of public colleges and universities. The average cost of public college tuition for the 2015-2016 school year was $9,410 for in-state residents and $23,893 for out-of-state residents, according to the College Board. The average price of public university tuition in Illinois for that same year is roughly $14,000 for in-state residents.

While Trump hasn’t had much to say about public college costs, Clinton and Sanders have both touted different plans to make the tuition cheaper.

Clinton has laid out a plan to make public colleges and universities debt-free. The candidate says that under this plan, students will not have to take out loans to pay for tuition, books, fees or other expenses and would pay only what they can afford.

“Families will make an affordable, realistic contribution and students will do their part by working 10 hours a week to help pay for school,” according to the candidate’s site. “Those with existing student debt will be able to refinance at a lower rate, which will give debt relief to an estimated 25 million borrowers.”

Sanders has proposed a plan to make public colleges and universities meet all of the financial needs of its students and allow low-income students to use federal, state and college/university financial aid to cover other expenses such as room and board and books.

Both plans involve expanding need-based financial aid. In the 2012-2013 school year, 83 percent of students at four-year public colleges and universities received some type of financial aid.

Clinton and Sanders’ plans have both come under scrutiny. Critics of Clinton claim her plan does not go far enough. She has countered by saying that families such as hers that are wealthy enough to make substantial contributions should not be able to free ride off of institutions that are completely free. Sanders’ critics question how he will pull of his plan to impose a tax on Wall Street speculators to pay for his proposal.


Anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise for years. However, the idea of clamping down on undocumented immigrants has garnered an even wider audience since Trump called Mexicans rapists and declared his intention to build a wall along the United States’ southern border.

There are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in America, approximately half of whom are from Mexico. Of those 11 million, about one million are children. Approximately 4.5 million children born in the U.S. had at least one undocumented parent, according to a study by the American Psychological Association. While the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are not children, it is clear that any immigration policy will impact the generation coming up now.

President Obama has vowed to provide a pathway to citizenship, a process for undocumented immigrants to obtain some kind of legal status, and to streamline the overall legal immigration process. He started the DAPA program, or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, in 2014, which protects some undocumented immigrants from deportation.

However, Obama has far from fulfilled his promise of immigration overhaul. The current administration deports roughly 400,000 people each year, according to Brookings Institute Junior Fellow Audrey Singer. A 2011 report from the Applied Research Center found that 5,100 children were in foster care after their parents were deported.

The immigration plans of Trump could not be more different than those of Clinton and Sanders. The Republican has said he supports the creation of a deportation force with seemingly unlimited capabilities for the purpose of deporting every single undocumented immigrant in the U.S. He has so far not mentioned any exceptions for undocumented children or undocumented immigrants with naturalized children.

Both Clinton and Sanders are proposing, among other things, a pathway to citizenship and prioritizing services to families.

Credit: AP

“We want people in this country to become citizens,” Singer said. “We have to acknowledge that people are not going to leave and the best thing we can do for them and for us…the best thing we can do is create a program that’s easy to use, that’s really fair and that doesn’t make people feel vulnerable so they do have incentive to sign up.”

However, Congress would surely be an obstacle to implementing a pathway to citizenship. While it is possible that the Democrats take back the Senate this election, it is nearly impossible for them to do the same in the House of Representatives. A Republican-controlled House would likely not swallow this pill very willingly.

Congress might not be the only obstacle to implementing any plan. After Trump’s divisive and threatening rhetoric, Clinton or Sanders may have to work on regaining undocumented immigrants’ trust.

“What it does to communities, local businesses, local labor markets, schools, families that are effected…just even talking about this creates a climate of fear, and I think that’s the intended effect right now,” Singer said.

Juvenile Justice

Much focus has been paid to the overall justice system. Even conservative icons Charles and David Koch have expressed support for reforming sentencing laws and reducing the incarcerated population. While this conversation is important, it has not, so far, extended much to juveniles in the criminal justice system.

There were over one million juvenile arrests in 2014. On any given day in 2013, over 54,000 juveniles were in some kind of correctional-related housing, be it a detention facility or residential placement. On any given day in 2014, over 4,000 people younger than 18 years old were inmates in adult jails.

While Trump has never had anything to say on this issue, both Clinton and Sanders have, during their times in the U.S. Senate, discussed sentencing fewer juveniles to prison sentences, keeping youths out of adult jails and ensuring that the juvenile justice system does not become a trap for those with mental health issues.

While experts agree these are noble endeavors, much more work needs to be done to reform the juvenile justice system.

One major issue within the juvenile justice system is low upper ages. This refers to the age above which a juvenile is considered an adult in the eyes of the law. For example, the upper age in North Carolina in 2015 was 15 years old, meaning a 16-year-old would be considered an adult for certain crimes. Last year, however, most states had an upper age of 17 years old.

This is a crucial aspect of the juvenile justice system, as youths’ brains do not function the same as those of adults. This plays into questions of motivation and culpability, according to Melissa Sickmund, the director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. While it is difficult to nail down an exact age that would be appropriate, she claims the current numbers are too low.

Another way a future president could help is by pushing for more funding into improving the system.

“If this was medicine, in medicine, you can’t prescribe something to people, there can’t be a medicine or a treatment unless someone knows it’s not going to harm the patient, and preferably that it will help them, right?” Sickmund said. “There is no equivalent like that when it comes to how we treat kids in the justice system. People are trying things willy-nilly, and even now there are things we know causes harm, but people still do it because on some gut level they think it’s going to work.”

This directly relates to legislation that is currently being debated in college. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act would impose federal standards across all states on issues such as adult lockup and preventing racial bias. Sickmund said that while the standards are good, the amount of money to help the states properly implement them is simply not there yet, and any significant improvement will not happen until funding matches states’ needs.

However, the bill has faced setbacks for reasons that are not financial. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas has placed holds on the bill, claiming that the legislation unjustly limits judges’ discretion.

Child Welfare and Homelessness

Child welfare and child homelessness are huge issues from which all three presidential candidates have largely stayed away. Approximately 250,000 children entered foster care in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and about 1.4 million students were homeless, according to Child Trends, a Maryland-based research organization focusing on children.

However, as with juvenile justice, the next president has power to improve children’s lives, and as with juvenile justice, there is major room for improvement in terms of research funding.

“I would want to spend more money on doing research on how to have the original family heal itself enough so it can keep the child at home. So spend more money on treatments and especially adapting treatments to new situations,” said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute. “We should be spending more money on that than we do on maintaining the kids in foster care.”

Child welfare and child homelessness are inextricably linked, Haskins explained, as many homeless youths wind up in foster care. Moreover, the threat of homelessness drastically increases tension within families, sometimes leading to child neglect or abuse.

It is clear these issues are not going away anytime soon, and only kicking the can down the road will just perpetuate and exacerbate these problems. However, while all three candidates have policies on education and immigration, there is much work to be done to formulate coherent policies on juvenile justice and child welfare and homelessness.

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