During her research for the Children’s Defense Fund’s recent report “Held Captive”: Child Poverty in America, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass visited the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and suburban Long Island, New York to profile three different kinds of child poverty. Her trip to Quitman County, Mississippi covered sadly familiar ground: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the Black sharecropping community in Marks, the seat of Quitman County, in the summer of 1966 to preach at the funeral of a friend, and Marks was later chosen as the starting point of the mule train that left Mississippi for Washington,
Tag: Marian Wright Edelman
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass prepared the recent Children’s Defense Fund’s report “Held Captive”: Child Poverty in America, she traveled to the Mississippi Delta, the ravaged cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana, and the birthplace of the suburban American dream in Long Island, New York to see several different sides of contemporary American child poverty. Despite the different circumstances children in these diverse communities faced, Cass found that there was something very familiar about the effects of child poverty everywhere she looked. The report’s title came from 13-year-old Audrey, who Cass met in rural Lambert, Mississippi. Cass heard Audrey say something “that captures the feeling of poverty that only those caught in it know and that could have been said by most all the children I met while researching this
Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy… Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to
“On your mark, get set, ready, go!” In the language of childhood, these words are an exciting invitation—and a signal that it’s time to be at the starting line and prepared to take off in order to sprint to success. But what happens when children aren’t ready for the most important race of their lives? Every year, four million children in America enter kindergarten, but as many as one in three won’t be ready for school—and many of them will never catch up. Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready
The distinguished theologian Howard Thurman once described an oak tree in his childhood yard with leaves that each autumn turned yellow and died but stayed on the branches all winter. Nothing—neither wind, storm, sleet, nor snow—dislodged these dead leaves from the apparently lifeless branches. Dr. Thurman came to understand that the business of the oak tree during the long winter was to hold on to the dead leaves before turning them loose in spring so that new buds—the growing edge—could begin to
Four years ago this February, an entire community was devastated in Prince George’s County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., when 12-year-old seventh grader Deamonte Driver died after complications from a tooth abscess. His mother Alyce, who worked at low-paying jobs, had searched for a dentist to treat Deamonte’s toothache who would accept Medicaid, but she was unsuccessful. Ultimately, Alyce took Deamonte to a hospital emergency room, where he was given medicine for a headache, sinusitis, and a dental abscess and sent home. But his condition soon took a turn for the worse, and he was back at the hospital being rushed to surgery where it was discovered that bacteria from his abscessed tooth had spread to his
While there is a lot of talk today about jobs, there has been far too little attention paid to the job prospects of young people. A new report prepared for the Children’s Defense Fund shows young people have lost more ground economically than any other age group over the last three decades. Dr. Andrew Sum, professor and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, and his colleagues paint a grim economic picture for the futures of young workers and young families, and Black young people and young families fare the
The school board of Wake County, where the state capital of North Carolina, Raleigh, is located, has been news a lot lately. Even Stephen Colbert used it in his “Word” segment on January 18, mocking the comments of a board member, John Tedesco. He and other Republican board members have taken the steps toward dismantling the bus system that guaranteed no single school would be left high concentrations of students from low-income households.
The fact that many of the board members, including Tedesco, are from the North (Tedesco is from New Jersey) has not been lost on the natives who went through the raw and painful, but successful, desegregation process in the late 60′s and 70′s. Among some, the resentment is
When Sargent Shriver passed away on January 18 at age 95, we lost a man whose life’s work improved the lives of millions of people around the world. He was sometimes best known for being a famous “in-law.” During the 1960s and 1970s, when he served in the federal government and as a candidate for Vice President and President, he was often noted for being the brother-in-law of President and the Senators Kennedy. In his later years, as his health faded from Alzheimer’s disease, he was sometimes best recognized as the father of Maria Shriver and father-in-law of her husband, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. But his connections to the Kennedy family only helped put him in the right place at the right time to use his own marvelous gifts and passion for public service on a national and global stage.
Sarge Shriver is rightly championed for serving as the founding director of the Peace Corps and working with the Special Olympics which his wife and partner, Eunice Kennedy Shriver,
As our country remembers the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., new research conducted for the Children’s Defense Fund has found the vast majority of America’s Black community, seven in 10 adults, view these as “tough or very bad times” for Black children and many see poor Black youths falling further behind. When 40 percent of Black children are born poor, 85 percent of Black children cannot read or do math at grade level in fourth grade and later almost half drop out of school, and a Black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison sometime in his lifetime, we know we are facing a crisis. So an intergenerational group of Black leaders have just committed to a renewed movement to reweave the fabric of family and community for Black children and to provide a stronger voice for children in their states and nationally.
We met in December for three days at the Children’s Defense Fund-Haley Farm near Knoxville, TN to address what many of us believe is the worst crisis faced by millions of Black children since
The New Year is marked with many kinds of celebrations, but for Black families and communities who celebrate Kwanzaa from December 26-January 1, every New Year’s Day marks a renewed dedication to community. Kwanzaa is a unique celebration because it is not a religious or a national holiday but a cultural one, and it doesn’t celebrate a person or an event but a set of ideas. As Dr. Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa’s founder, explains, “There is no way to understand and appreciate the meaning and message of Kwanzaa without understanding and appreciating its profound and pervasive concern with values. In fact, Kwanzaa’s reason for existence, its length of seven days, its core focus and its foundation are all rooted in its concern with values.” And the values Kwanzaa celebrates and asks people to live up to aren’t about individual private behavior, but the values a community needs to be strong and thrive.
The Nguzo Saba, or seven principles, are the framework of a Kwanzaa celebration. In fact, Dr. Karenga explains, they are the key building blocks of community in general. Each day during Kwanzaa focuses on one of these principles and reminds celebrants to recommit to that value: “Umoja (unity), to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race. Kujichagulia (self-determination), to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves. Ujima (collective work and responsibility), to build and maintain our community together and make our brother’s and sister’s problems our problems and to solve them together. Ujamaa (cooperative economics), to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together. Nia (purpose), to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness. Kuumba (creativity), to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it. And imani (faith), to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
Not everyone celebrates Kwanzaa, but these values contain some universal principles for building strong communities. The Kwanzaa celebration ends on January 1 with the Day of Meditation. Many people already spend New Year’s Day making resolutions for improving themselves during the next year. But imagine if this year we all resolved to improve our communities instead. Imagine if every child in this nation were being raised in a community resolved to seeing any member’s problems as everyone’s problems and solving them together, or to making sure that all community members lived together harmoniously and supported each other in their common goals, or that every community decision would leave the community healthier and more beautiful tomorrow than it is today. What kinds of places would these communities be for our children—and, by extension, for all of us?
During a traditional Kwanzaa celebration muhindi, ears of corn, are also laid on a mkeke, a straw mat. The mat symbolizes African peoples’ history and traditions, and the corn symbolizes children and the future. Families place one ear of corn on the mkeke for each child in the household, but they’re instructed to put at least two ears down even if they don’t have children, because in African tradition every adult is considered a parent to every child in the community. Many people talk about this belief, but imagine if every one of us were really putting it into action—and then imagine if our local, national, and global communities all committed to making it our most important community value.
During that final Day of Meditation in Kwanzaa, people are supposed to ask themselves three questions: “Who am I? Am I really who I say I am? And am I all I ought to be?” Everyone answers these questions as an individual, but their answers should reflect how well they are playing their part in making their community function as a whole. A person’s success is deeply connected to how much value they are giving to others. At a time when our children desperately need adults to reweave the fabric of community for them, many of us need to ask ourselves the same questions. Think about how you might answer these questions—and how your own community might answer them, or how our nation would.
Are we all that we ought to be?
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In this Thanksgiving week of 2010, when 15.5 million children are living in poverty—many hungry and homeless; when the gap between rich and poor is the highest ever; when the very richest Americans have reaped a huge tax windfall from the Bush tax cuts and some political leaders want to give them more; and when, incredibly, some political leaders are playing politics with the very survival of our children and earth in our nuclear saturated world by blocking immediate passage of the START treaty to control nuclear weapons, I hope we will pray for an end to child poverty in all of its forms.
God help us to end poverty in our time. The poverty of having a child with too little to eat and no place to sleep, no air, sunlight, and space in which to breathe, bask, and grow.The poverty of watching your child suffer and get sicker and sicker and not knowing what to do or how to get help because you don’t have a car to get to the emergency room or health insurance.The poverty of working your fingers to the bone every day taking care of somebody else’s children and neglecting your own, and still not being able to pay your bills.The poverty of having a job which does not let you afford a stable place to live and being terrified you’ll become homeless and lose your children to foster care.The poverty of losing your job and searching and searching and searching for another amidst an epidemic scarcity of work.The poverty of working all your life caring for others and having to start all over again caring for the grandchildren you love.The poverty of earning a college degree, having children, opening a day care center, and taking home $300 a week or even month if you’re lucky.The poverty of loneliness and isolation and alienationhaving no one to call or visit, tell you where to get help, assist you in getting it, or care if you’re living or dead.The poverty of having too much and sharing too little and having the burden of nothing to carry.The poverty of convenient blindness and deafness and indifference to others, of emptiness and enslavement to things, drugs, power, money, violence, and fleeting fame.The poverty of low aim and paltry purpose, weak will and tiny vision, big meetings and small action, loud talk and sullen grudging service.The poverty of believing in nothing, standing for nothing, sharing nothing, sacrificing nothing, struggling for nothing.The poverty of pride and ingratitude for God’s gifts of life and children and family and freedom and country and earth and not wanting for others what you want for yourself.The poverty of greed for more and more and more, ignoring, blaming, and exploiting the needy, and taking from the weak to please the strong.The poverty of addiction to drink, to work, to self, to the status quo, and to injustice.The poverty of fear which keeps you from doing the thing you think is right.The poverty of despair and cynicism.
God help us end poverty in our time in all its faces and places, young and old, rural, urban, suburban and small town too, and in every color of humans You have made everywhere.
God help us to end poverty in our time in all its guises—inside and out—physical and spiritual, so that all our and Your children may live the lives that You intend in the richest nation on earth.
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As the economic downturn lingers, a striking characteristic is just how widespread its impact still is. Recent reports state that more Americans are now living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities — a trend that has increased dramatically during the recession. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of families who once donated to food pantries or other organizations serving the poor who now need to turn to these same places for help themselves. As more Americans experience economic uncertainty, the face of poverty in our nation today is changing. The harmful threats from the current recession which are leaving so many families newly desperate and at wits end are not new for millions of chronically poor children.
A recent study by scholars at the Urban Institute focused on the dangerous effects of “persistent poverty” so many children experience. It notes that nearly half of all children born into poverty will be persistently poor, meaning they will be poor for at least half of their childhoods. The risk of persistent poverty is especially great for Black children, who are more likely to be born poor: 40 percent of Black children are poor at birth, compared to eight percent of White children. Black children are seven times more likely than White children to be persistently poor; more than two-thirds of Black children who are poor at birth will be poor for at least half of their childhoods.
Being born into poverty and living in persistent poverty put children at tremendous risk, and the cumulative effects often mean especially negative outcomes. Being born poor is a significant predictor of adult as well as child poverty: the same study reports that while just four percent of children born into non-poor families end up spending at least half their early adult years in poverty, 21 percent of children born poor will spend a significant amount of their early adulthood in poverty. These children have a range of worse adult outcomes than children born into higher-income families. Children who are born poor and live in persistent poverty are more likely to drop out of high school, experience teen pregnancy, and have unstable employment as young adults. Every year children spend living in poverty further erodes their future potential. The deck is stacked against them before they’ve taken their first breath.
It’s clear that the Great Recession has thrust millions of children and families into poverty — many in extreme poverty — jeopardizing the promise of a productive future for children and our nation. Millions more are likely to suffer long-term effects of the recession and more will become mired in persistent poverty — unless and until we have the courage to act decisively and invest in the future of our most vulnerable children. As a first step, we must not allow Congress to continue the Bush tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of this year for the richest two percent of taxpayers. Continuing tax cuts for individuals with incomes under $200,000 and families under $250,000, as President Obama proposes to do, will assist 98 percent of tax filers and help jumpstart the economy since those benefiting will likely spend what they receive.
With 15.5 million children living in poverty, there is no rational or sensible argument for spending an additional $68 billion a year, $700 billion over ten years, to reward the very richest people with an average tax cut of more than $310,000. These multimillionaires, with average incomes of $6 million, saw their fortunes grow enormously these last several years while millions of children and families fell backwards. These funds could give millions of poor children a head start in life by enrolling all 4.2 million eligible infants and toddlers in Early Head Start and all 2.1 million eligible three- to five-year-olds in the Head Start program. Currently only three percent of eligible children are enrolled in Early Head Start and just over 40 percent of eligible children are enrolled in Head Start.
As Congress returns, it must help maintain extra supports for low income children and families. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund, which has created more than 250,000 short-term jobs for low-income parents, must be extended before it expires at the end of the year. Improvements in the Child and Earned Income Tax Credits must be made permanent to help low and middle income families make ends meet. All of these investments make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of children. Multimillionaires should get at the end of the line for government help. They’ve had far more than their fair share.
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The problem of bullying in our nation’s schools has been in the headlines again, in large part because of a heartbreaking series of recent tragedies: children and youths who took their lives after they were bullied or harassed because their peers believed they were gay. We need to immediately send a clear message to all our children that bullying and harassment for this or any other reason is simply not acceptable. At the same time, we need to make sure that every child knows she or he is a gift from God and feels loved and accepted and valued the way they are.
President Obama was one of the thousands of people who recently chose to record a video statement for the “It Gets Better” Project, started in September by journalist Dan Savage who is collecting and posting messages of hope and encouragement to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths who might be experiencing harassment or bullying or feeling isolated and desperate right now. The President said, “We’ve got to dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage – that it’s some inevitable part of growing up. It’s not. We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids. And to every young person out there, you need to know that if you’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help…You are not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve being bullied. And there is a whole world waiting for you, filled with possibilities. There are people out there who love you and care about you just the way you are…The other thing you need to know is, things will get better.”
It will get better—and adults need to do everything possible to be sure that for these youths and all other children and teens who are being bullied or harassed today, it gets better right now. Earlier this year, the first—ever Federal National Bullying Summit was held in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee, a collaboration between the U.S. Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Interior, and Justice. In his opening remarks Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted that in 2007 nearly one out of three students in middle school and high school said they had been bullied at school during the school year, and one out of nine secondary school students, or 2.8 million students, said they had been pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on during the last school year. Secretary Duncan made clear that the government is committed to enforcing laws against harassment wherever they apply and doing all else possible to keep schools and students safe. The Administration has already planned several next steps for the coming months, including a White House conference on bullying early next year and a series of workshops the Department of Education will hold for educators across the country.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recently reminded school districts that harassment based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability violates federal civil rights laws, so in every instance where a school “knows or reasonably should have known” about this kind of harassment, it has the responsibility under federal law to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring. Schools have this responsibility even if the misconduct is already covered under the school’s discipline policy, and regardless of whether a student has complained, asked the school to take action, or identified the harassment as discriminatory. Adults must simply take charge—as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali put it, it is the school’s responsibility to “stop it, fix it, and prevent it.”
But bullying can take many forms, for many reasons—and bullying that does not violate these specific federal guidelines is still serious, dangerous, and wrong. The Department of Education outlined a list of negative effects of bullying and harassment: lowered academic achievement and aspirations; increased anxiety; loss of self-esteem and confidence; depression and post-traumatic stress; general deterioration in physical health; self-harm and suicidal thinking; feelings of alienation in the school environment, such as fear of other children; and absenteeism from school. In an age where technology is making cyberbullying and other new kinds of harassment an even more widespread threat, it is more important than ever that all adults—starting with every single parent—be sure our children understand that any kind of bullying is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Studies show many youths who bully others have been mistreated themselves but even this can never be an excuse. It must simply add to the urgency we all feel about stopping the cycle right now.
Find out what you can do to end bullying in your community by visiting the Stop Bullying Now campaign website.
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Many faith communities around the country have just held their annual National Observance of Children’s Sabbaths® celebrations, an event coordinated every October by the Children’s Defense Fund. It encourages congregations of all faiths to consider how they can respond to the Divine mandate to nurture, protect, and ensure justice for all children. This year’s theme was “Blessed to Be a Blessing,” based on the promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis. Participants were invited to consider how they can use the blessings they have received to be a blessing to others. The Reverend Solomon Jackson, Jr., a retired state employee from South Carolina, set a powerful example after he received an unexpected blessing of his own.
What would you do if you won the lottery? Lots of people like to daydream about the answer, but for Reverend Jackson this question became reality when he won the $259.9 million Powerball jackpot in the summer of 2009. He knew immediately that he wanted to share some of his winnings with others and decided that one of the first recipients would be Morris College, a historically Black college in Sumter, South Carolina affiliated with the Baptist Church where he had studied religion. So in January, Reverend Jackson handed his alma mater a check for $10 million—the largest gift Morris College had ever received from a single donor.
In September the college broke ground on one of the new buildings made possible by his gift, a maintenance and office facility named after Reverend Jackson’s father and two of his spiritual mentors. Reverend Jackson remembered how his father supported his wife and eleven children by mowing lawns in the morning and working as a custodian at the University of South Carolina at night for seventy-five cents an hour: “He taught me everything that I know, even pushing a lawnmower when it was dull and he had to work to feed all of us,” he told the audience at the groundbreaking. Reverend Jackson said his father taught him about hard work and the value of a quarter, and naming the maintenance facility at Morris College in his honor was a way to bring his lessons and legacy full circle.
The maintenance building will be just a small part of Reverend Jackson’s own legacy at the school. His gift is also being used for new dormitory and administration buildings, freshman and athletic scholarships, needed repairs at existing buildings, a new coach bus, and the college’s endowment. While many donors give large gifts like his slowly over a period of time, Reverend Jackson chose to give his all at once so that Morris College could begin putting it to use immediately. He told others that education was the first thing that came to his mind after he won the lottery. “I realize that the position that I’m in comes with the good and the bad, but I promise to be led by God and if I’m led by God, I can’t forget those who led me to where I am,” he said at the groundbreaking. “Morris College will always and forever be a part of my life.”
Morris College President Dr. Luns C. Richardson said generations of students will be able to enjoy Reverend Jackson’s generosity. The school is especially known for training teachers and ministers, and students cheered and jumped for joy at the campus assembly where they learned about his gift. When Reverend Jackson announced his gift to Morris College, he said he felt as if the gift he had received from the lottery was continuing to grow—“like a snowball rolling down a snow-covered hill.” How wonderful to be able to share in his good news and his example of being blessed to be a blessing to others! Historically Black colleges like Morris have played and continue to play a special and crucial role in America and have produced a disproportional share of Black leaders. My father, a marvelous minister and servant of God, graduated from Morris in the 1920s. All of the Wright children grew up knowing the importance of education and service. All of us went to college and three of us earned advanced degrees. And all of us used our gifts to give back to others. I’m so grateful for that legacy and I thank Reverend Jackson for ensuring that Morris’s continues.
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As we enter into the home stretch of another election season, many pundits have been asking whether a lack of “enthusiasm” might keep some voters home. Questions about which voters are most “motivated” and “excited” seem to come up every election cycle. But any voter who isn’t enthusiastic about the ability to place a vote and have a say in these midterm elections for local, state, and national leaders is shirking their responsibility and wasting a huge opportunity others have struggled and died for. Those of us who participated in and lived through the Civil Rights Movement know firsthand that the right to vote is something Black Americans were fighting and dying for not very long ago. Many of them could not have imagined—as Robert Kennedy correctly predicted—that within a generation we would have our first Black president. One hundred years ago American women were still marching and fighting for equal voting rights that hadn’t yet been guaranteed in the Nineteenth Amendment. In places around the world others are still struggling and sacrificing for a freedom too many Americans now take for granted.
We have a responsibility to those who could not vote and those who still can’t—including children—to make our own votes count. As I told my sons in what became The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours: use your political power for others less fortunate. Vote and hold those you vote for accountable. We get the political leaders we deserve. America’s children and future are too important to leave to politicians elected by just a few of the loudest mouths backed by the powerful interests, who do not have to reveal their names, who seek to turn the clock of racial and social progress backwards. Any American who cannot bother to vote and who thinks that a single vote does not matter is letting America down and letting millions of children down. In a democratic society, if we like or don’t like what our political leaders are doing, we must make that clear through our voices and our votes. But we cannot accomplish that by staying home.
In this election season amidst continuing economic downturn, children face an emergency. Fifteen and a half million children are poor—more than one in five of all children, more than one in three Black and one in three Hispanic children. The increase in child poverty between 2008 and 2009 was the largest of any age group and the greatest single year increase for children since the 1960s. There is no more urgent need for our nation’s leaders than to stop the rise in child poverty and suffering and eliminate and alleviate right now its harmful short and long term effects. The catastrophic BP oil spill’s assault on our environment was an urgent national emergency but so is the catastrophic impact of this recession and the chronic suffering of millions of children left adrift in a sea of hunger and homelessness, failing schools, political neglect, and budget cuts. We must declare a national child emergency and demand that our leaders do no harm, indeed stand up and vote to invest in the basic human needs of all of our children to shelter, food, quality education, and safety.
It is critical that Members of Congress vote against extension of the profligate tax cut for the top two percent of wealthiest Americans and for extending tax cuts to the 98 percent of Americans who warrant help. Our future prosperity rests on our courage to step forward and close the gaping and growing gap between the very richest few in America and the rest of America, especially our struggling children. Now is a time when America can and must turn economic downturn into an opportunity to correct the gross imbalance of government subsidization of the wealthiest and most powerful among us and provide a strong safety net for all children. All our leaders in both parties need to respond to children’s needs. But they will not unless they hear from you through your voices and votes.
As candidates line up to ask for your support in the final few days, demand that they commit to protecting babies as much as bankers and investing in children as generously as corporations. Get out to vote on or before November 2nd to give children the help they need. If you don’t vote for and protect children who will?
I have said repeatedly: People who don’t vote have no line of credit with people who are elected and thus pose no threat to those who act against our interests. Children can’t vote. But you can and must.
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Recently released U.S. Census Bureau data confirmed our worst fears about the impact of this deep recession. Nearly four million more Americans fell into poverty in 2009: 44 million or one in seven of us are unable to meet our basic needs. Worst of all, children, our most vulnerable group, experienced the steepest rise in poverty and the largest single-year increase since the 1960s. After dropping twenty-four percent between 1992 and 2000, the number of children in poverty increased more than one-third between 2000 and 2009. An additional 1.4 million children swelled the ranks of poor children to 15.5 million children — more than one in five children. This almost ten percent increase in child poverty over 2008 is shameful, disturbing, and threatening news for millions of our nation’s children — unless our nation addresses their human emergency needs.
Our youngest children are most at risk of being poor, at the very same time that their brains are rapidly developing and attention to their developmental needs is so important. More than five million children under age five are poor, and 2.4 million live in extreme poverty.
Children of color continue to suffer disproportionately from poverty. Black and Hispanic children are about three times as likely to be poor as White non-Hispanic children. In 2009, more than one in three Black children (4 million) and one in three Hispanic children (5.6 million), compared to more than one in ten White non-Hispanic children (4.9 million), lived in poverty. Race still matters a lot.
Almost 60 percent of poor children — 9.2 million — lived in single parent families but married couple families were not immune to the recession’s effects. Nearly nine percent more married couple families were poor in 2009 than in 2008. And two-thirds of poor families had one or more family members working.
The Great Recession’s impact on millions of children and families has jeopardized the promise of a productive future for their children and for our nation and demands greater action by our leaders and all of us. Millions of children are and will be negatively impacted unless we have the courage to act decisively, sensibly, and decently to lend a stronger hand.
Congress must help parents get back to work and maintain the extra supports they are currently receiving until they are back on their feet again. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) Emergency Fund has created more than 250,000 short-term jobs for low-income parents. It will end shortly unless Congress extends it for another year. Unemployment benefits, which kept over three million people out of poverty, must be extended before they end in November. Improvements in the Child Tax and Earned Income Tax Credits must be made permanent to help low and middle income families help their children survive and thrive. These investments will make a difference in the lives of millions of children and put us back on a path toward prosperity. This is where our tax dollars must go—not to help the wealthiest two percent of Americans who have seen their fortunes grow enormously while millions of our children and families fell backwards.
Children need our action now. This devastating but expected increase in the number of children living in poverty drives home the fact that we are failing miserably in our moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable among us. It is fiscally incomprehensible and morally indefensible that our leaders are debating extending an average tax cut of $100,000 a year for individuals earning over a million dollars annually when 15.5 million children are living in families struggling everyday to survive on a fraction of that single tax cut and when one in 50 Americans have no cash income according to a New York Times survey. America can and must turn this economic downturn into an opportunity to step forward and correct the gross imbalance of government subsidization of the wealthiest and most powerful among us by making it a national priority to invest now in the early childhood development, health, education, and well-being of our children. Our nation will not succeed unless we do. Children are the foundation of America’s future and tomorrow is today.
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As a new academic year starts, children around the country are going back to school and settling into new classes. Meanwhile, parents, educators, policy experts, and politicians are gearing up again to monitor and measure student learning—and preparing to ask the hard questions about whether or not the children in their care are getting the best possible education. Hard questions sometimes elicit hard answers, and often it is the students themselves who know the answers better than the adults in charge. But we seldom ask the students, and when they do speak up, we rarely pay attention to what they have to say. Last spring, Justin Hudson, a student who knows the questions and answers well, spoke up about equity in education. We all need to listen to Justin’s words.
Justin was a senior at Hunter College High School in New York City, and he had been chosen to deliver the graduation speech for his class. Hunter is a public school for grades 7-12 that has a national reputation for excellence and sends a quarter of its graduates on to Ivy League schools—a figure many private schools would envy. But Hunter’s students don’t resemble the student body at most of the city’s other public schools. They are considered intellectually gifted based on the results of an admission test written by the school’s teachers, and, as the New York Times recently noted, there are very few minority students at Hunter: while Hunter’s entering seventh grade class last year was 3% Black and 1% Hispanic, 70% of the students in the public school system as a whole are Black and Hispanic. Justin, who is Black and Hispanic himself, chose to address this obvious disparity in his speech—and this eighteen-year-old’s observations eloquently sum up one of the most urgent debates in education today.
Justin told the audience that as he stood at the podium reflecting on the stellar education he had received over the last six years, “More than anything else, today I feel guilty. I feel guilty because I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds…We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as ‘gifted,’ while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system. And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance. If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that.”
Justin continued, “It is certainly not Hunter’s fault that socioeconomic factors inhibit the educational opportunities of some children from birth, and in some ways I forgive colleges and universities that are forced to review eighteen-year-olds, the end results of a broken system. But we are talking about eleven-year-olds. Four-year-olds. We are deciding children’s fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colors. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we’re smarter than them…I apologize if this is not the speech you wanted to hear…I apologize if I have not inspired you, or uplifted you, but we have failed to inspire and uplift an entire generation of children.”
Justin then explained that he didn’t mean his speech to be a moral lecture to his classmates because he understood that he had benefited from the current system just like everyone else in the room—but he now wanted to turn the guilt he felt for having being blessed with such tremendous opportunities into determination to help bring the same kinds of opportunities to other children, and he hoped others would join him. He said, “I do not know the capacity in which I will be able to make this world a better and more just place, but I strongly believe that education is the most effective means of creating social improvement, which is precisely why this is a battle we cannot concede…I hope that in the near future, education itself will not be a privilege for the few in this world [and] I hope that a quality education will not be a privilege for the few in this country.”
Making sure that a quality education is available to every child in our country—and is not just a privilege for a few—is indeed one of the great battles of our time. It is the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and the task that will help determine America’s place on the global stage in a rapidly changing world. I am so grateful that a bright young leader like Justin is already sensitive enough to recognize that every child deserves an education like his and brave enough to speak out and join the fight to make that happen. We all need to pay attention to Justin’s words of wisdom.
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