A new health care bill is taking form in Congress, setting off a national conversation about what an ideal health care plan for the country should look like. Two recent volumes of The Future of Children address the importance of health care for children: “Children’s Health and Social Mobility” in Opportunity in America, and “A Health Plan to Reduce Poverty” in The Next Generation of Antipoverty Programs.
The nation’s health care concerns are not just about coverage, but also about having healthier citizens – and healthy lifestyles begin in childhood. One way to increase child health is to increase their parents’ access to healthcare—parents who are proactive about their own health are often better at getting their kids preventative care too, rather than just going to hospital emergency rooms when problems emerge. Although nearly all children in families with incomes under 200 percent of poverty are eligible for either Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), the parents of these poor and near-poor children often lack health insurance.
Parents who leave welfare normally lose coverage after one year unless their employer provides it, and many employers of low-wage workers do not offer health insurance. As a result, many of the working poor and near-poor have no coverage at all, and the idea of losing Medicaid even discourages adults from working. More available and affordable health care would both remove this disincentive from work and benefit children’s health. Beyond increasing health care coverage for parents, a government plan should also educate parents as “the primary gatekeepers for their children’s health.” Even if health care is available, parents must learn how to make the best use of preventative care and medical information.
Health issues of low-income children have major consequences for both them and society at large. These children may miss more classes or be less able to concentrate on studies, ultimately making them less likely to stay in school. Education challenges and health issues persisting into adulthood may decrease earnings and socioeconomic status. This has wider consequences, as lower-income families may require more state support while contributing fewer tax dollars. In addition, education is often seen as “the great equalizer” and the means by which the American Dream operates, so if the poor health of lower-income children limits their social mobility then America may not be living up to its full promise. These situations are problems for all of society, not just those most directly affected, so health care reform that improves child health should be universally appealing.