Democrats must offer a vision for children and families

Charles Bruner served in the Iowa legislature from 1978 to 1990 and was founding director of the Child and Family Policy Center from 1989 through 2016. For the last six years, he headed a Health Equity and Young Children initiative focusing on primary child health care for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Democrats prioritize investing in children but don’t stress the importance of parents in raising the next generation. Republicans do the opposite.

The electorate wants both.

Until we make children’s issues part of our political dialogue, we will not do either.


Prior to the 2020 Iowa caucuses, I talked with or questioned eighteen Democratic presidential contenders: Michael Bennett, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tom Steyer, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang.

I told them children were in jeopardy of growing up less healthy and less equipped to lead in a world economy than their parents and asked them what they would do to change this prognosis. They responded showing knowledge of the problem—from the importance of brain development in early childhood to the impact of stress and trauma on development, and current educational disparities by race and place as well as the need to invest more in child health, education, and early care. Not only that, they were enthusiastic and authentic about discussing children and our future.

Yet the candidates generally didn’t mention this topic in their stump speeches. Nor was it included in the campaign issue statements on their websites. Children’s issues didn’t come up in the multiple presidential candidate debates during the Democratic primary.

Although he did not present it as such in his campaign, President Joe Biden proposed transformational investments in children and families—across health, family economic security, and pre-K through college education—as part of his Build Back Better plan. Democrats in Congress responded by including an expanded and fully refundable child tax credit, child care subsidies and support, and investments in pre-K through post-secondary education in the American Rescue Plan Act.

Those policy reduced child poverty in half and began to build a new infrastructure for children’s development. Biden and Congressional Democrats nearly succeeded in making such investments permanent, despite receiving no Republican votes in either chamber. They fell two Democratic votes short in the Senate.

It’s clear that Democrats prioritize investing federal government resources in children and families. But they say little about that, or about parents’ role in raising the next generation. Although Democratic campaign messaging usually includes specific plans for seniors, veterans, small businesses, rural communities, and other constituencies, it’s rare for candidates to highlight children’s issues.

In short, Democrats believe the governor should invest in children, but they do not speak about that or to the rights and responsibilities of parents in doing so.


Republicans tend to do the opposite. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds provided a classic example when she delivered the GOP response to Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address. While touting her state’s tax cuts and curbing the size of government, Reynolds also stressed that Republicans believe “parents matter” and are leading a “pro-family” agenda.

In Iowa and other states with GOP trifectas, Republicans define being “pro-family” as supporting vouchers and choice in education, while restricting what public education can teach and not “indoctrinating” children. Many of these states have not adopted Medicaid expansion options under the Affordable Care Act, such as expanded post-partum coverage for mothers or extending Medicaid coverage to parents below the poverty level.

When Donald Trump was president and Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress, the GOP enacted the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. That law provided major tax cuts, primarily directed to wealthy Americans and corporations. The revenue reductions further limited government capacity to make infrastructural investments in children. No Democrats voted for the bill. While Republicans may support some specific investments in children and families, they do not prioritize such spending and often oppose it.

While children do not vote (the often-spouted reason for not talking about them in campaigns), their parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles do. Adults care a lot about children and their future. This public strongly agrees that “government has no responsibility greater than ensuring the next generation grows up healthy and prepared to lead.” Polls consistently show that voters want government to invest more, not less, in children across health, education, and economic security and opportunity.

While Republican leaders are stressing that “parents matter” and they are pursuing a “pro-family” agenda, they have a narrow and restrictive definition of parents and family. Their policies represent the beliefs of only some families.


Democrats would do well to advocate for a “pro-family” agenda which includes all families. That would include those marginalized by race and discrimination, those with LGBTQ members who want society to be inclusive of them, those who need health insurance but cannot afford  to pay its full costs, and those who simply believe in a strong public education system that teaches children to think for themselves (and not just as their parents might want).

Such policies would include teaching U.S. history in a way that recognizes racial, gender, and economic discrimination and exploitation. National polls have shown a strong majority supports both public education and the teaching of our country’s full history.

I believe deliberative dialogue on how society and therefore government can best support children and their development can get us to make the investments in children that we need.

If Democrats insist on this dialogue, I think they will find newfound strength and resonance with a good share of those white, older, less educated, and rural voters where the biggest shifts in voting have occurred. Democrats have the right investment priorities already; they just need to talk about them in terms of values.

At least one Republican scholar recognizes his party’s vulnerability in this respect. A fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, Patrick Brown sees Republicans as needing to prioritize investments in children and families at the same time as they reinforce their family values. In a recent guest column for the New York Times on “What Republican Parents Really Want,” Brown wrote:

But the center of gravity in the Republican Party is still more comfortable picking culture war fights than offering policy solutions. A true party for parents needs to provide something for their pocketbooks as well as for their values. Republicans […] need to understand that a pro-family agenda that doesn’t provide material support to families will be, at best, half-baked. […]

College-educated Republican parents, for example, would especially like to see elected officials focusing on more issues like promoting the so-called success sequence (that is, earn at least a high school diploma, get a job and then marry before having any children) to high schoolers, enforcing the paying of child support and keeping kids from getting access to pornography online.

Republican parents without a college diploma support those ideas, too. But they are much more likely to support actual spending for families — a full child tax credit to every family with a worker present, assistance in paying for child care, social spending on pregnant mothers and elimination of tax code provisions and safety net policies that are more generous to couples who live together than those who marry.

For Democrats, advocating for investments in children and families and articulating an “all families” agenda could be both good policy and good politics.

Not only is there broad voter support for such investments and concern over the future of children if those investments are not made, a very significant share of the voting electorate (one in five) have or have had careers in the very occupations where such investments need to be made: teachers, nurses, early care and education staff, and front-line health and community workers. They are good messengers and respected members of virtually all communities in the country—urban or rural, affluent or poor, older or younger, working class or college-educated, predominantly white or racially and ethnically diverse.

In fact, directing some campaign efforts toward this kind of message may offer a path for Democrats to regain some of the voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but favored Trump in 2016 and 2020.

Patrick Brown obviously sees this as an opportunity for Republicans to broaden the party’s base. I think, though, that GOP candidates will have a difficult time pivoting to advocating for these kind of investments. If they do, will find that this still plays into Democratic hands, if Democrats take on the issue.

Whether Brown or Bruner is correct, of course, depends upon what both parties and their candidates do and how that resonates. Either of us could be wrong on where the partisan benefit would accrue from elevating such issues in the 2024 election. Regardless, I am sure that children, their families, and our society would benefit from the resulting policies either way.

Top photo by wavebreakmedia available via Shutterstock.

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What's missing from Iowa's carbon pipeline debate

Scott Syroka is a former Johnston city council member.

There’s something missing in the debate over Iowa’s proposed carbon capture pipelines. Too often the discussion breaks down along familiar frames of the pipeline companies against landowners, or labor unions against environmentalists. When we stop the analysis here, we lose sight of what the fight is really about: the role of monopoly power in Iowans’ lives.

To date, no politician of either party is making this connection. Some have gotten close in their critiques of the pipeline companies, but none have highlighted the role of corporate monopolies in enabling these proposed schemes to exist in the first place. It’s strange because, as prominent politicians like U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar note, history is sitting right there in front of them.

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Courageous business Republicans needed

Jim Chrisinger is a retired public servant living in Ankeny. He served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, in Iowa and elsewhere. 

When we retired back to Iowa from Seattle in 2018, Iowa was trending purple. The Des Moines metro was a hot destination for young professionals and families. No more.

MAGA has displaced the pragmatic and welcoming conservatism that Governor Bob Ray and U.S. Representative Jim Leach personified and so many of us admired.

How does this development sit with business Republicans now cohabiting with their new MAGA partners? It can’t be comfortable. MAGA folks aren’t even conservative, not at least the way most of us knew conservative.

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Indentured servitude in Iowa

Nate Willems served in the Iowa House from 2009 through 2012 and practices law with the Rush & Nicholson firm in Cedar Rapids. This essay previously appeared in the Prairie Progressive and the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

If you have never had to learn or appreciate what a non-competition agreement, or non-compete is, consider yourself lucky. These documents hold workers hostage to the whims of employers.

The idea that a non-compete is an “agreement” overstates things. Commonly, when a person gets a job, a non-compete is just another document the employer requires the employee to sign. The employer may or may not explain what it is. Whatever explanation an HR representative provides is not binding on the company. 

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Iowa House passed carbon pipelines bill: What’s in, what’s out, what’s next

Jennifer Winn is an Iowa Organizing Associate with the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. She is based in Sioux County, Iowa.

On March 22, the Iowa House approved legislation to restrict carbon pipelines by a 73-20 bipartisan vote. Though substantially watered down through a last-minute amendment, House File 565 would restrict the use of eminent domain for the hazardous carbon pipelines threatening Iowa.

Unlike many divisive policies passed through the peoples’ chamber this year, the fight against the proposed carbon pipelines has united Iowans from across the state. Polling released last week confirmed, for the second year in a row, that a majority of Iowans don’t want land to be seized for carbon pipelines. The latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found that 78 percent of Iowans oppose eminent domain for carbon pipelines. According to polling commissioned by Food & Water Action, 80 percent of voters favorable to Governor Kim Reynolds oppose eminent domain for the carbon pipelines.

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New GOP plan for I-WILL sales tax misses mark

Pam Mackey Taylor is the Director of the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club.

In 2010, about 63 percent of Iowa voters approved a state constitutional amendment creating the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The amendment stipulated that revenue from the first three-eighths of a percent of any state sales tax increase would go to the trust fund.

Companion legislation established how those funds would be allocated: 23 percent for natural resources, such as natural areas, wildlife diversity, recreation, and water resources; 20 percent for soil and water conservation; 14 percent for watershed protection; 13 percent for the Resource Enhancement and Protection fund (commonly known as REAP); 13 percent for local conservation agencies; 10 percent for trails; and 7 percent for lake restoration.

The campaign to successfully get the constitutional amendment and the legislation was called the Iowa Water and Land Legacy, or I-WILL. During the first few years after adoption of the constitutional amendment, the I-WILL coalition attempted to persuade the legislature to raise the sales tax to fund the program. But the fund remains empty, because state lawmakers have not increased the sales tax.

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What the stamen said to the pistil

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

I read in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that Iowa Senate Education Committee chair Ken Rozenboom told his colleagues, “We want everyone to be clear about the role that parents have in their child’s education.”

Rozenboom was floor managing Senate File 496, the wide-ranging education bill that originally came from the governor’s office. The Senate approved the bill March 22 on a party-line vote of 34 to sixteen. It’s now pending in the House Education Committee.

Among many provisions, the bill bans books that include a sex act (emphasis added). Erin Murphy reported for the Gazette,

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Is it right to treat big whales differently from small fish?

Randy Evans can be reached at

On a late summer afternoon in Bloomfield 40 years ago, the people of Iowa learned about an unofficial government principle we have seen repeated in recent weeks.

Although this has played out in various ways through the years, it ultimately comes down to the same concept: If your problem is large enough, government will step in and lend you a helping hand. But if government decides yours is not a big problem, you probably will have to fend for yourself.

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A dangerous education proposal, given Iowa's cancer rate

Rick Morain is the former publisher and owner of the Jefferson Herald, for which he writes a regular column.

One state registered a significant increase in cancer incidence from 2015 to 2019, the most recent year for which data is available from all 50 states. That would be Iowa. The only one.

According to the Cancer in Iowa 2023 report, only Kentucky ranked ahead of Iowa in the rate of its residents’ cancer cases. But Kentucky’s rate has decreased recently, while Iowa’s grew.

The reasons for those facts remain a mystery. University of Iowa researchers are trying to figure it out.

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Women who saved Alexander Clark’s house

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal.

September 1974. Crisis averted?

At a meeting of stakeholders, members of the women’s group studying historic homes of Muscatine assured city officials they would not block demolition of a house built by historic resident Alexander Clark. Their expressions of concern had raised fears of an impending nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

Muscatine Journal, September 26: “Such a nomination would, in effect, dash the city’s hopes for the 100-unit federally funded complex for low-income elderly, according to Charles Coates, city administrator.”

But study group member Bette Veerhusen said others might take up the cause.

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Is Brad Zaun repeating Jake Chapman's mistake?

Six of Iowa’s 34 Republican state senators introduced a resolution this week urging the federal government “to investigate and arrest” officials running the Washington, DC jail where some involved in the January 6 attack on the Capitol are being held pending trial. Senate Resolution 8 characterizes conditions at the jail as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” and akin to “the most notorious concentration camps of World War II, the gulags of the former Soviet Union, the prison camps of Communist China, and the torture camps of North Korea.”

Five of the six senators who co-sponsored this resolution represent solidly Republican districts, where Donald Trump received more than 60 percent of the vote in the 2020 presidential election.

Then there’s Brad Zaun.

It’s the latest sign Zaun is not moderating his behavior to reflect the mostly-suburban Senate district 22, where he is expected to seek re-election next year. That’s a risky approach for the five-term Republican from Urbandale, given that voters in Senate district 14 sent the arch-conservative Senate President Jake Chapman packing in 2022.

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To protect LGBTQ rights in Iowa, we need to address monopoly power

Scott Syroka is a former Johnston city council member. This essay first appeared in the Sunday Des Moines Register.

Chuck Magro. John May. Donnie King. Cory Harris. Charles Scharf.

These are the CEOs of five of the most powerful corporations operating in Iowa: Corteva. John Deere. Tyson. Wellmark. Wells Fargo.

Where are they? Should we request a wellness check to make sure they’re OK?

These CEOs lead corporate monopolies making billions every year off the bodies and brains of Iowans, including LGBTQ Iowans, yet they’ve been missing in action as Iowa Republicans advance the largest number of anti-LGBTQ bills ever in a single legislative session.

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Is this heaven? No, Iowa's becoming hell for lots of us

Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.

Given the travesties and tragedies Governor Kim Reynolds has already visited upon Iowans, with the help of a GOP-controlled legislature that rubber-stamps her agenda, it is long past time to retire the phrase “Iowa nice.”

Let’s also give a rest to the most famous line from the movie “Field of Dreams”: “Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa!”

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Mental health care by video fills gaps in rural nursing homes

Tony Leys is Rural Editor/Correspondent for Kaiser Health News, where this story was first published. Follow him on Twitter @TonyLeys.

KNOXVILLE, Iowa ― Bette Helm was glad to have someone to talk with about her insomnia.

Helm lives in a nursing home in this central Iowa town of about 7,500 people, where mental health services are sparse. On a recent morning, she had an appointment with a psychiatric nurse practitioner about 800 miles away in Austin, Texas. They spoke via video, with Helm using an iPad she held on her lap while sitting in her bed.

Video visits are an increasingly common way for residents of small-town nursing homes to receive mental health care. Patients don’t have to travel to a clinic. They don’t even have to get cleaned up and leave their bedrooms, which can be daunting for people with depression or anxiety. Online care providers face fewer appointment cancellations, and they often can work from home. While use of some other telehealth services may dwindle as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, providers predict demand for remote mental health services will continue to increase in rural nursing homes.

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Iowa House Democrats, think outside the box on pipelines

Julie Russell-Steuart is a printmaker and activist who chairs the Iowa Democratic Party’s Disability Caucus. The Iowa House is expected to debate an eminent domain bill (House File 565) on March 22.

Currently, we have a robust nonpartisan movement of people backing legislation that would restrict the use of eminent domain to construct carbon dioxide pipelines across Iowa.

The latest Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom shows an overwhelming majority of Iowans—82 percent of Democrats, 72 percent of Republicans, and 79 percent of independents—are against letting corporations use eminent domain for a land grab to build pipelines. Most Iowans realize these corporations do not have their best interests in mind. From the devaluing of our century farms to the strong risk of a rupture that would endanger lives and health, Iowans have been speaking up about these risks all over the state.

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Legislative attacks hurt Iowa students, teachers

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring.

On that first day of school in 1979, I oozed anxiety. After all, there were 30 sets of unknown eyes waiting for the show to begin. I was the show. Am I going to be the tough guy not smiling until Halloween or the open arms teacher? Will my deodorant hold so I don’t pit-out before first period?

That was then. Now, Iowa teachers have much more to worry about than pit stains

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Iowa's culture war is bad for business

Deb VanderGaast is a registered nurse and child care advocate seeking to advance state and national child care and disability policy, inclusive child care practices and improve access to quality, affordable child care for working parents. She was the 2022 Democratic nominee in Iowa Senate district 41.

Municipal, county and state governments have a lot in common with private businesses, especially non-profits. They have to raise revenue to support the workforce and resources needed to produce services or products that will attract and retain customers. That’s how they maintain and grow their revenue. That revenue flow makes a business viable and financially stable.

For the state of Iowa, our “customers” are the people and businesses choosing to locate here. They create economic activity that generates tax revenue.

Our “products” are the services, infrastructure, and laws that make it desirable for businesses and individuals to move to Iowa or remain here. If residents and businesses leave, Iowa loses tax revenue and workers, so will have less of the human and financial resources needed to produce quality products and services to attract and retain others.

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The fight to preserve a Muscatine landmark

This column by Daniel G. Clark about Alexander Clark (1826-1891) first appeared in the Muscatine Journal.

September 1974. One building or the other might have been doomed.

The fate of the historic Alexander Clark House was at stake. So was the long-planned and much needed apartment high-rise that now bears the name of the Muscatine resident one historian calls “the most important African American leader who almost no one has heard of.”

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Can Iowa's "bathroom bill" withstand court challenge?

Republicans took another step last week toward making the Iowa legislature’s 2023 session the worst ever for LGBTQ people. After letting similar bills die without committee approval as recently as 2021, the GOP fast-tracked legislation this year that prohibits transgender people from using the school restroom or locker room that corresponds to their gender identity.

The Iowa Senate passed the latest “bathroom bill,” Senate File 482, on March 7 in a party-line vote. The Iowa House approved the bill on March 16 by 57 votes to 39, with five Republicans (Chad Ingels, Megan Jones, Brian Lohse, Phil Thompson, and Hans Wilz) joining every Democrat present in opposition.

Governor Kim Reynolds is expected to sign the bill, along with legislation banning gender-affirming health care for minors. At this writing, neither bill has been forwarded to her office.

Iowa’s GOP trifecta won’t have the final word on the subject, however. Transgender plaintiffs have challenged restrictive bathroom policies in several states, and I expect one or more Iowa students to file suit soon after Senate File 482 goes into effect.

During the floor debates in the Iowa House and Senate, lawmakers pointed to key issues courts will consider as they weigh the bill’s stated goal (protecting students’ privacy) against its adverse impact on a specific group (students whose sex listed on a birth certificate does not match their gender identity).

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