Although the percentage of poor children dropped in 2013 for the first time since 2000, from 21.8 percent (16.1 million) in 2012 to 19.9 percent (14.7 million), there were still 1.3 million more poor children than in 2007 before the recession began.
It is a moral disgrace that child poverty in the U.S. is higher than adult poverty, higher than for children in almost all other competitor nations, and higher than our country with the world’s largest economy should ever allow. Wealth and income inequality are still at record high levels and opportunity gaps are widening. What values and priorities do these unjust realities reflect? Isn’t it time to reset our moral and economic compass? If we want to build a strong workforce, military, and economy and ensure the most basic tenets of opportunity for the most vulnerable, we must and can end child poverty now.
Poverty hurts children and destroys their dreams, hopes, and opportunities. Poor children are more likely to go hungry, which is associated with lower reading and math scores, greater physical and mental health problems, higher incidence of emotional and behavioral problems, and a greater chance of obesity. Poor children are less likely to have access to affordable quality health coverage, have more severe health problems, and fare worse than higher income children with the same problems. A poor child with asthma is more likely to be reported in poor health, spend more days in bed, and have more hospital episodes than a high-income child with asthma. Poor children suffer a 30 million word interaction gap by age 3 and are less likely to enter school ready to learn and to graduate from high school. One study found children who were poor for half of their childhood were nearly 90 percent more likely to enter their 20s without completing high school than never poor children.
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Child poverty increases the risk of unemployment and economic hardship in adulthood. Those who experienced poverty at any point during their childhood were more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 as those who were never poor as children. The longer a child is poor, the greater the risk of poverty in adulthood and experiencing poverty as a child also increases the likelihood of lifelong health problems and involvement in the criminal justice system. Child poverty scars some children for life.
Child poverty has huge economic costs for the nation. Year after year the lost productivity and extra health and criminal justice costs associated with it add up to roughly half a trillion dollars, or 3.8 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). What we can never measure though are the countless innovations and discoveries and contributions that did not occur for our nation because children’s potentials were stunted by poverty.
Poverty rates change over time with the economy and with changes in government policies. The U.S. has made substantial progress in reducing poverty over the past 50 years despite worsening inequality and increased unemployment. Child poverty dropped 36 percent between 1967 and 2012 when income from tax credits and in-kind benefits like nutrition and housing assistance are counted. Ending child poverty would save lives and money and increase productivity. For example, eliminating child poverty between the prenatal years and age 5 would increase lifetime earnings between $53,000 and $100,000 per child, for a total lifetime benefit of $20 to $36 billion for children born in a given year. When are we going to gain enough moral, common and economic sense to treat our children justly and give all of them a level playing field upon which to grow? Children have only one childhood and it is today. Chilean Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral said, “We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow.’ His name is today.”
Given that the U.S. has been blessed with great wealth and high ideals which we need to live up to and given the high costs we incur from child poverty every year, how can our country not act to end child poverty now?
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org
Mrs. Edelman, a graduate of Spelman College and Yale Law School, began her career in the mid-60s when, as the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, she directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi. In l968, she moved to Washington, D.C., as counsel for the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began organizing before his death. She founded the Washington Research Project, a public interest law firm and the parent body of the Children’s Defense Fund. For two years she served as the Director of the Center for Law and Education at Harvard University and in l973 began CDF.
Mrs. Edelman served on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College which she chaired from 1976 to 1987 and was the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation on which she served from 1971 to 1977. She has received over a hundred honorary degrees and many awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings which include: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change; The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children; Stand for Children; Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors; Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind; I’m Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children; I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children; and The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation.
She is a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation and the Association to Benefit Children, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Marian Wright Edelman is married to Peter Edelman, a Professor at Georgetown Law School. They have three sons, Joshua, Jonah, and Ezra, two granddaughters, Ellika and Zoe, and two grandsons, Elijah and Levi.
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank The Children’s Defense Fund and the Author, Marian Wright Edelman for their kindness, awareness, and for inviting us to look at what we accept as a nation. Might it be time to ponder and authentically live and breathe spirituality?