By Marian Wright Edelman
Children have only one childhood and it is right now. Millions of children in our nation require emergency attention in our recession ravaged economy as poverty, including extreme child poverty, hunger, and homelessness have increased, if irreparable harm is not to be inflicted on them and on our nation’s future.
The greatest threat to America’s national security comes from no enemy without but from our failure to protect, invest in, and educate all of our children who make up all of our futures. Every 11 seconds of every school day, a high school student drops out of school; every 32 seconds a baby is born into poverty; every 41 seconds a child is confirmed, abused or neglected; every 42 seconds a baby is born without health insurance; every minute a baby is born to a teen mother; every minute a baby is born at low birth weight; every three hours a child or teen is killed by a firearm. A majority of children in all racial and income groups cannot read or do math at grade level in 4th, 8th or 12th grade. Over 80 percent of Black and Hispanic children cannot read or compute at grade level. These numbers are a moral travesty and an impending national disaster requiring priority attention at the highest level of decision making.
If the foundation of your house is crumbling, you don’t say you cannot afford to fix it. Children are the foundation of America’s future. We need to invest now in their health, early childhood development, and education. Today is tomorrow.
God has blessed America with great material wealth, but we have not shared it fairly with our children and our poor. Although we lead the nations of the world in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in billionaires, and in military technology, defense expenditures, and military exports, our money and our military might have not translated into moral might, adequate child safety and wellbeing, and a concept of enough for those at the top and at the bottom.
Children are the poorest age group and the younger children are, the poorer they are. We rank highest among industrialized nations in relative child poverty and in the gap between rich and poor, which is the highest ever recorded in America. In the 1960s, when the economy was expanding, about two-thirds of the nation’s income gains went to the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households. In the first half of this decade, it was just the opposite: the wealthiest one percent reaped two-thirds of income gains. In 2007, the income share for the wealthiest 10 percent of households, 49.74 percent, was the highest ever recorded. It is obscene for anyone to advocate for continuing of the unjust Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans at a time of economic downturn and escalating child poverty and budget deficits.
Where is our anti-poverty movement at a time when, according to a New York Times front page story, one in 50 Americans has no cash income? “Almost six million Americans receiving Food Stamps report they have no income. They described themselves as unemployed and receiving no cash and no welfare, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions, child support or disability pay. About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a recorded income that consists of nothing but a Food Stamp card,” the New York Times’ Jason DeParle reported.
This shocking New York Times article provoked no public outcry, action or shame. It did not stop most Republican political leaders from trying to block or resist extension of unemployment insurance, investing more federal dollars in creating jobs, expanding tax credits for working families desperately trying to feed, house and clothe their children, or investing more in stimulating an economy slowly struggling to recover with 14.6 million workers still unemployed and massive state deficits which will cause more job loss. How morally obscene it is that a nation with a GDP exceeding $14 trillion cannot find the will, common sense and decency to provide a safety net to protect its over 14 million poor children – the number before the recession, which is expected to push millions more children into poverty and extreme poverty, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Brookings Institution. This is a time when America can and must turn economic downturn into an opportunity to step forward to correct the gross imbalance of government subsidization of the wealthiest and most powerful among us and provide a safety net for all children from growing hunger, homelessness and stress. Now is the time to correct the laissez-faire federal policies that enabled the few to run roughshod over the life savings of many hard working Americans and wreck the lives and dreams of millions of children.
The Children’s Defense Fund’s new report describes the status of children in a range of areas – what has improved, worsened or stagnated; the continuing racial and income disparities faced by children of color who will make up a majority of our workforce which must support our increasingly aging population by 2025; and the higher costs of child poverty and neglect and the savings from preventive investment. I can only hope that the facts in this report will wake us up and provoke us to speak out.