Laura Speer, Associate Director, Policy Reform and Advocacy, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Laura Speer, Associate Director, Policy Reform and Advocacy, Annie E. Casey Foundation

Children are the future. In a country whose population is aging faster than expected, the implications of that truism should be of special concern. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy based in Baltimore that works to improve the lives of America's children and their families, certainly believes so. And it backs that work up with data — lots of it, including its signature KIDS COUNT data book and center.

Earlier this week, the foundation published the second report (28 pages, PDF) in its Race for Results series, a KIDS COUNT spinoff that explores "the intersection of kids, race and opportunity" and describes many of the barriers to success facing children of color in America. The report also includes a section devoted to immigrant families and children, as well as policy recommendations designed to ensure that all children in America have the opportunity to realize their full potential.

PND spoke with Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the Casey Foundation, about the new report's findings, the potential consequences of Trump administration policies for immigrant children, and the economic argument for boosting spending on programs designed to improve health, education, and economic outcomes for kids of all races and color.

Philanthropy News Digest: Your new report, the second in the Race for Results series, is based on data from 2013 to 2015 and shows general improvement across the board in most of the twelve indicators the foundation uses to measure how children from different racial backgrounds are faring on the path to opportunity. Were you surprised by any findings in the report?

Laura Speer: Well, we were happy to see improvement across the board in many of the measures we track. Of course, both reports covered periods when the country was recovering from the Great Recession, so it wasn't a huge surprise to see improvement in many of the measures — things like the percentage of young people who are graduating from high school or teen pregnancy rates. Those are areas where we're seeing improvement for all kids. What is disheartening, however, is that there really wasn't much of a change in the gaps that existed previously for African American, Native American, and Latino kids, all of whom, in the aggregate, are still lagging behind other groups of kids in terms of meeting these milestones.

PND: The report argues that we can't afford to ignore those disparities any longer. Moral arguments aside, why do we need to pay more attention to the barriers that prevent kids of color from reaching their full potential?

LS: We made the case in the first report, and we reiterate it again here, that in the United States today, slightly less than 50 percent of the child population are kids of color. However, demographic pro­jections show that that is going to change pretty quickly, and that kids of color will be the majority of the child population in just a few years. And, because kids grow up to be adults, people of color will comprise the majority of the workforce within the next couple of decades and the population of the country itself will be majority people of color by 2040 or so. In other words, today's kids of color are our future work force, the future parents of the next generation of American kids, the future leaders of our country. And that is why it is more important than ever that we not accept or get comfortable with these disparities, and why we've got to identify the factors that are contributing to the barriers to success that exist for kids of color and figure out how, as a country, we can design policies and programs that help more young people achieve their full potential. We need these kids and all the talents they possess if we want to be able to compete on a global scale and be successful as a country in the long run. 

PND: During the Obama years, federal immi­gration policy was focused on border enforcement and apprehending people referred by state and local law enforcement agencies. In contrast, the Trump administration seems eager to criminalize all immigrants living in the United States without authorization. What are the implications of that shift in policy for the well-being of children in immigrant families?

LS: We expect there to be some pretty serious consequences as a result of decisions taken by the Trump administration. Right now, eighteen million children in our country are living in an immigrant family. That's one out of four kids in America. The vast majority of these young people, about 88 percent, are U.S. citizens, but their parents are not. Only about half of them have a parent that’s a U.S. citizen, and about five million children in immigrant families have a parent who is unauthorized. So for those children, the change in policy has serious implications for the stability of their families. And because family stability is a key factor in a child’s well-being, there are likely to be negative repercussions — I don't just mean the day-to-day stress that many families are feeling right now, but long-term physical and mental health consequences for kids who have been separated from their parents. As the enforcement focus shifts from people with criminal records to a broader swath of people who are not authorized to be in the country, the likelihood that parents are going to be picked up in sweeps is much higher and their kids are going to be adversely affected.  

One of the things we recommend very strongly in this report is that children's well-being is included in immigration policies and enforcement practices, and that agents and courts are granted some discretion in terms of how they are prioritizing who is picked up and deported. The way we think about it is that many of these kids are U.S. citizens, and they are critical to the long-term success of the country, so we want their families to be as stable as possible. 

PND: Some of these issues we're discussing are highlighted quite dramatically by the current debate over DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and the plight of the eight hundred thousand or so kids, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the United States as young children and have been protected by the program. What would you like to see the Trump administration and Congress do about DACA and the Dreamers, and how do you think the situation is going to play out? 

LS: Well, the second part of that question is a little harder to answer than the first. Again, from our perspective, this is about the future of the country. The vast majority of the Dreamers are in school or are working. And many of them are themselves the parents of young children who are U.S. citizens. That fact merely reinforces our view that these young people, and their children, are a critically important part of the country's future success. With all the talent and drive they possess, it would be both cruel and foolish to send them back to countries they barely remember and don’t think of as home. Our hope is that Congress will act quickly to protect them and allow them to stay on the path they’re on and give them a chance to realize the American dream.

PND: Is the American dream still achievable for immigrants and immigrant families in 2017? 

LS: I have to believe so. As much as anybody has a chance to achieve the American dream right now, I think immigrants do. And we mustn’t lose sight of all that they contribute — not just their labor, but their optimism and belief in a brighter future. We're at a critical juncture right now, and I'm hopeful that decision makers will make the right choices to ensure that young people, all young people, regardless of race or background or immigration status, are successful. We need them. The business community understands that; you can see it in the advocacy work that employers are supporting to protect the Dreamers. Business leaders understand the importance of these young people for our labor force in the long run, and they understand that we need to keep talent in the country, not push it away.  But I'm an optimistic person, and I’m going to say that the answer to your question is, "Yes," the American dream is still alive. We just need to make sure that everyone who needs help to achieve it gets the help they need.

Mitch Nauffts