April 24, 2015

Udall Delivers Keynote Speech at New Mexico Early Childhood Development and Health Symposium

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall delivered the keynote speech at an Early Childhood Development and Health Symposium sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center on Health Policy and the McCune Charitable Foundation. The symposium in downtown Albuquerque brought together national and local researchers, practitioners and policymakers to address ways to improve early childhood development and health outcomes in New Mexico. Udall is a leader in the push to improve child health and education and reduce poverty in New Mexico.

"Early childhood development is crucial. If we fail at this, we will fail at everything else. Children are our future workforce, our future communities and our future leaders." Udall said in his remarks. "Poverty, it is often said, is a vicious cycle. We have to break that cycle. That is the tough reality and we need to face it. We won't break it with words or empty promises. We will break it with the right priorities and with smart investments. This is the road forward.

"We can't let children keep falling behind. We need to look to the future and move forward. All children deserve quality health care - deserve a quality education. Every child should have a chance at the American dream," Udall continued.

Udall introduced the Saving Our Next Generation (SONG) Act, major legislation aimed at helping improve the health and education of New Mexico children by increasing access to federal education and anti-poverty programs. The bill calls for better access and full funding for critical programs that help children succeed, including child care grants, Medicaid, Head Start, the Children's Health Insurance Program, school meal programs, universal pre-K education, and housing assistance. Udall also cosponsored the PRE-K Act to expand access to high-quality early learning programs for children from birth to age five. Udall recognizes that solutions to lift up children must involve collaboration at the federal, state and local levels, and he has endorsed a New Mexico constitutional amendment to dedicate a portion of the state's Land Grant Permanent Fund to early childhood education programs.

Below are Udall's remarks as prepared for delivery:

Thank you, Adrian, for that kind introduction. I'm happy to be here, but more important, I'm happy that you all are here. We need you - your commitment, your expertise, your dedication.

So, first, I want to thank the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy and the McCune Charitable Foundation for putting together this symposium, because nothing is more important than our children. You all know that and you are doing important work about it.

And we are all clear on one point. Early childhood development is crucial. If we fail at this, we will fail at everything else. Children are our future workforce, our future communities and our future leaders.

We have talented, inspiring people - many right here in this room - folks like Adrian Pedroza and Dr. Gabriel Sanchez - doing all they can to help. We have determined families, struggling against all odds trying to make a better life for their children. Our challenge is to make sure they have the resources they need.

Poverty, it is often said, is a vicious cycle. We have to break that cycle. That is the tough reality and we need to face it. We won't break it with words or empty promises. We will break it with the right priorities and with smart investments.

This is the road forward. It is not an easy road. If it were, New Mexico would be ranked at the top-not the bottom.

Almost one third of the children in New Mexico live in poverty. Among Native American children, it's 44 percent. One in five children across our state goes to bed hungry. Their parents can't find adequate child care. They can't get quality medical care when they need it. They lack access to safe housing and clean water.

New Mexico is ranked last in overall child well-being, and next to last in education, in children's health and economic well-being.

Those are not just numbers. They are stories of great suffering. They are warnings of falling behind. Most of all, they are a wake-up call we cannot ignore.

This troubles all of us. It has to change. The future - not just for our children, but for our economy - depends on changing it.

The upside is we can change it. We know what works - high quality prenatal care, home visiting programs, critical early childhood support, and preschool. These programs work. They also save money- more than $8 for every $1 invested.

Just this month, New Mexico was awarded $55 million dollars for several Head Start programs. We fought hard for that funding to be available for grantees. We know what a difference it will make, and I'm pleased that agencies in New Mexico successfully competed for this important funding.

Also, the Senate recently re-authorized the Children's Health Insurance Program, but only for two years. Nearly 10,000 New Mexico kids depend on CHIP for health care.

I wanted to extend CHIP for four years. Half a loaf is better than none, but we can't keep making down payments. We can't mortgage the future of children on partial efforts and stopgap measures.

The challenges are great. Let's be honest about that, but it's not beyond our control. The answer is not just to find solutions. The answer is to commit to them.

Our commitment has to be equal to the challenge. I believe - strongly believe - that we need a Marshall plan to lift children up.

That is why I have introduced the Saving Our Next Generation (SONG) Act. The SONG Act is a call to action for better access and for full funding for critical programs that help our kids succeed - including child care grants, Medicaid, Head Start, CHIP, WIC, SNAP and universal pre-K education.

It also calls for making the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax credit permanent, and it supports raising the federal minimum wage. No American who works full-time should be in poverty, and neither should their children.

In addition, I'm cosponsoring the PRE-K Act to expand high-quality early learning programs for children ages three to five, as well as programs like Healthy Start for newborns and their parents. The president has called for this as well. These programs lead the way. They make a difference right from the start, but not if they are not available - not when children can't get to them.

In New Mexico, less than half of children attend preschool. Too many are left out and left behind. Doors are closed to them early on, and it is all the harder to open them later. We have to change that.

I have met with many child well-being experts here in New Mexico and across the country. Their message is clear: children have to come first. These are investments we must make.

Healthy kids are an investment in our future. We need to be doing more. Unfortunately, the budget making its way through Congress would do less. It calls for $4.7 trillion in non-defense spending cuts over the next 10 years and no increases in revenue.

Where would those cuts come from? They would be piled on the backs of working families, the elderly and children.

The budget would cut the Earned Income Tax Credit, slash Medicare and Medicaid, childcare, Head Start, education - all on the chopping block. It would cut programs for low-income children, seniors and families by up to $660 billion dollars over 10 years, including SNAP and child nutrition programs. All this and more so that hedge funds and millionaires can pay less.

A budget isn't just numbers. It is about choices and priorities. Children should be our priority. They should not take a back seat to billionaires. We cannot ask Main Street and families to keep sacrificing while we fail to close a single tax loophole on Wall Street.

We have been down this road before. It is a U-turn back to failed policies of the past. It is Robin Hood in reverse and would be a disaster for families and children.

Washington plays a crucial role, and so do states and local communities. All bring something to the table. That is why I support the constitutional amendment here in New Mexico to dedicate a portion of the permanent fund to early childhood programs.

We can't keep playing catch-up. Too little, too late doesn't work. The result is wasted opportunity and continued failure. Children need to arrive at school ready to learn and able to realize their full potential. Federal, state and local officials, and parents themselves all have an important role to play.

Politics is the art of standing your ground, but also finding common ground. I hope Congress will work together. I will reach across the aisle to anyone to make that happen. We can't let children keep falling behind. We need to look to the future and move forward.

All children deserve quality health care - deserve a quality education. Every child should have a chance at the American dream. Your zip code is not your destiny.

It will take time. It will take hard work, but as my dad used to say, "Get it done, but get it done right." You are vital to this effort - to getting it done right - and I look forward to hearing more about your discussions.

Nelson Mandela once said that, "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."

We need to remember that, and we need to remind those who may forget. Thank you again for inviting me here today, and thank you for all that you do.