The U.S. spends more of its total GNP on health services than any other nation, yet it has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the industrialized world. Young American children are immunized at rates that are one-half those of Western Europe, Canada, and Israel. In the mid-1980s, a consensus among policymakers on the need for federal action to improve child health services resulted in the expansion of Medicaid eligibility for pregnant women and young children and the separation of Medicaid eligibility from eligibility for AFDC. The current phase of child health policymaking includes discussion of much broader proposals for changes in health care financing and innovation in health care delivery. This examination of child health policy begins by reviewing the politics of maternal and child health services from the early twentieth century to the Reagan administration, including the role of feminist movements, the development of pediatrics, and the expansion of federal involvement during the 1960s. Next, the politics of Medicaid expansion as a strategy for addressing child health issues are discussed. Current critiques of child health services in the U.S. are examined, along with proposals to restructure health care financing and delivery. Central to the politics of child health policy during the 1980s and into the 1990s is the way in which child health has been defined. Infant mortality and childhood illness are presented as preventable problems. Investment in young children is discussed as a prudent as well as a compassionate policy, one which will reduce future health care costs and enhance our position in the international economy. Unlike other “disadvantaged groups,” children are universally viewed as innocent and deserving of societal support. Framing child health issues in these terms helped to produce consensus on the expansion of Medicaid eligibility. Yet the issues beyond the expansion of Medicaid eligibility involve the restructuring of health care financing and delivery, and, on these issues, conflict is far more likely than consensus.

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