CBS News reported this morning that U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D), who represents the 37th district of Los Angeles, is being vetted as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Were Biden to choose her, it would put one of Congress’ most prominent voices on child welfare issues in position to wield tremendous influence in the next administration and, perhaps, run for president herself in the near future.
Bass’ most visible committee leadership position is as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and she has been in the news in recent weeks as the lead legislator on the House’s police reforms bill. But behind the scenes, Bass has led the House on child welfare for the better part of a decade, forging bipartisan agreements to move along a slate of legislation aimed at improving federal funding and policy on the issue.
She is the longtime co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, which has more than 120 members, and pioneered the now-annual Foster Youth Shadow Day, where young people visit Capitol Hill to spend a day with a member of Congress.
Among Bass’ legislative achievements on child welfare:
- Guaranteeing Medicaid through age 26 for youth who age out of foster care, a provision that was first included in the Affordable Care Act and which Bass has continued to amend for broader coverage.
- Pushed for the Family First Prevention Services Act, a major overhaul of the federal Title IV-E entitlement for child welfare services, and co-authored House legislation last year to provide assistance to states for implementing the law.
- The Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which enabled child welfare workers to access education records that are protected by the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.
- Expanded the upper age ceiling of the John Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, which provides about $140 million to states each year for independent living programs and $45 million for college aid to current and former foster youth.
Were Bass to end up on the winning ticket in 2020, she’d become the vice president most steeped in child welfare policy since Walter Mondale. Mondale, who represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate before becoming Jimmy Carter’s veep, led a push in the 1970s to dramatically expand child care, health and nutrition programs for poor families. When the package was vetoed by President Richard Nixon, Mondale helped co-author the more surveillance-oriented Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
Before being elected to Congress in 2010, Bass, who is 66, served as speaker of the California State Assembly. She worked as a physician’s assistant after graduating from San Diego State University, and also earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California.
Child welfare became a focal issue for Bass in the early 1990s during the crack cocaine epidemic, she said, in a 2017 interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
“We were not as enlightened about substance abuse then as we are now, so in those years we just put everybody in prison,” Bass said. “Crack was the first time that women used drugs equal to men, and that really hadn’t happened before. When that happens, of course, then families fall apart and kids were removed from homes.”
Bass started the Community Coalition to push for a better response. “At that time, grandmothers were waking up in the middle of the night” and being told they’d have to take their grandchildren in because their daughter was under arrest.
“And now you have three grandkids and you’re 70 years old on a fixed income with medical issues. We started organizing those grandmothers to fight for resources,” Bass said.
John Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.