Put Children First at the Polls

Shetal Shah, MD, FAAP

Shetal Shah, MD, FAAP

Shetal Shah, MD, FAAP is neonatologist at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital and Immediate Past President of the NYS AAP-Chapter 2.  He is the Chair of the Pediatric Policy Council.  This op-ed was published in Tampa Bay Times on November 1, 2022.

Let’s put children first at the polls

 When I head to the polls, I’ll be voting with the needs of children and my patients in mind.

You haven’t heard much about one of the biggest issues facing voters this election.  While candidates focus on gas prices and inflation, problems directly affecting children are going unnoticed.  As a pediatrician, I am urging voters to head to the polls with the interests of children in mind and select representatives who prioritize programs the children I care for rely on to remain healthy.

Gun violence.  It is now the No. 1 killer of children. Kids in the United States die from firearms at a rate 7 times higher than in Canada and 19 times higher than other wealthy nations. In 2020, more than 4,300 children died from firearms, almost 40% from suicide.  Elected officials must be unafraid to address this violence, supporting research into ways to prevent childhood gun injury.  They must then have the courage to enact evidenced-based policies.  We already know requiring guns to be safely stored in a locked area separately from ammunition saves pediatric lives, but candidates are not running on platforms of making safe storage of firearms a requirement for gun ownership.

Insurance.  More than half of all children have health insurance from Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  These programs acted as a strong safety net during the pandemic, as children of parents who lost jobs became eligible.  Federal provisions preventing states from removing children from Medicaid during the COVID health emergency further supported children.  Nationally, more than 4.1 million children who would have lost health insurance during the pandemic remained covered.  The result of these policies is historic.  The number of uninsured children is the lowest in U.S. history.

But candidates are not highlighting this remarkable achievement and pledging to thwart efforts to dis-enroll children from insurance coverage.  Candidates who protect Medicaid, and other programs that target low-income children and families will get my vote because they are helping me care for my patients.

Hunger.  Child hunger is both a national epidemic and a national disgrace.  One in five children, 14.6 million, participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides assistance to purchase food for hungry families.  Hunger among children is so common that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening all kids for food insecurity.  In addition to the nutrition assistance program, the Women, Infants and Children’s (WIC) program provides nutritional support to parents, babies and infants.  Babies under my care often require expensive special formulas priced at $50 per can — costs which add up for families on almost any income.  Our patients rely on this program, even if they are financially well-off.  Just last week I discharged an infant after 3 months in the neonatal intensive care unit.  His parents were both police officers, but because of their newborn’s unique medical condition, the baby’s special formula would cost up to $10,000 per year without this assistance.

These programs ensure new parents can feed their child.  But when politicians talk about caring for children, there is no talk about increasing funding for food programs despite the high inflation that has made even greater numbers of kids reliant on them.  A few months ago in the emergency room, we cared for a baby with salt levels that were so imbalanced — it’s a miracle he didn’t have a seizure.  Since prices had gone up and the program support they received limited, the families were diluting newborn formula to make it last longer, unaware of the potentially deadly consequences.

Candidates love to mention inflation, but fail to note it has driven more children into poverty and necessitates a strengthening of our safety net, so no newborns fall through the cracks.

Kids first.  When politicians put kids first, compromise and progress happen.  After the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas — legislators finally realized every child should feel safe at school.  The resulting Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was the first major federal gun violence reduction legislation in decades and a promising first step to more negotiated public safety measures for firearms.

Pundits and candidates alike classify votes into categories.  There is the “economy voter,” “crime voter” and “undecided, suburban voter.”  Legislators need to know there is a constituency of doctors, parents, nurses, grandparents and teachers whose vote depends on how highly those running for office prioritize children’s needs.  These voters give a voice to the 20% of the population with no vote.  When I head to the polls, I’ll be voting with the needs of children and my patients in mind.

If you love a child, so should you.