America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life.
—Martin Luther King Jr.
They have become great and rich
they have grown fat and sleek. …
they judge not with justice
the cause of their fatherless …
and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood for the good or evil side;
Some great Cause, God’s New Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ’twixt that darkness and that light.
—James Russell Lowell
It is a national moral disgrace that there are 14.7 million poor children and 6.5 million extremely poor children in the United States of America – the world’s largest economy. It is also unnecessary, costly and the greatest threat to our future national, economic and military security.
There are more poor children in America than the combined residents in six of our largest U.S. cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and San Antonio with a combined total population of 14.6 million residents. There are more children living in extreme poverty in the United States (6.5 million) than there are total residents in 33 individual states and the District of Columbia.
The younger children are the poorer they are during their years of greatest brain development. Every other American baby is non-White and 1 in 2 Black babies is poor, 150 years after slavery was legally abolished.
America’s poor children did not ask to be born; did not choose their parents, country, state, neighborhood, race, color, or faith. In fact if they had been born in 33 other industrialized countries they would be less likely to be poor. Among these 35 countries, America ranks 34th in relative child poverty – ahead only of Romania whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours.
The United Kingdom, whose economy, if it were an American state, would rank just above Mississippi according to the Washington Post, committed to and succeeded in cutting its child poverty rate by half in 10 years. It is about values and political will. Sadly, politics in our nation too often trumps good policy and moral decency and responsibility to the next generation and the nation’s future. It is way past time for a critical mass of Americans to confront the hypocrisy of America’s pretension to be a fair playing field while almost 15 million children languish in poverty.
The Children’s Defense Fund just released a groundbreaking new report, Ending Child Poverty Now, that calls for an end to child poverty in the richest nation on earth with a 60 percent reduction immediately. And it shows that solutions to ending child poverty in our nation already exist and for the first time how, by combining expanded investments in existing policies and programs that work, we can shrink overall child poverty 60 percent, Black child poverty 72 percent, and improve economic circumstances for 97 percent of poor children at a cost of $77.2 billion a year. These policies could be and should be pursued immediately, improving the lives and futures of millions of children and eventually saving taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars annually.
Child poverty is way too expensive to continue. Every year we keep 14.7 million children in poverty costs our nation $500 billion – six times more than the $77 billion investment we propose to reduce child poverty by 60 percent. MIT Nobel Laureate economist and 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Dr. Robert Solow in his foreword to a 1994 CDF report Wasting America’s Future presciently wrote: “For many years Americans have allowed child poverty levels to remain astonishingly high … far higher than one would think a rich and ethical society would tolerate. The justification, when one is offered at all, has often been that action is expensive: ‘We have more will than wallet.’ I suspect that in fact our wallets exceed our will, but in any event this concern for the drain on our resources completely misses the other side of the equation: Inaction has its costs too … As an economist I believe that good things are worth paying for; and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money. If society cares about children, it should be willing to spend money on them.”
It makes no economic sense to continue to spend on average three times more per prisoner than per public school pupil and continue to build a massive prison industrial complex that has become the new American apartheid. And it is profoundly unjust to continue making budget cuts in safety net programs to feed and house the poor and not provide an opportunity and decent wages for parents who work while increasing wealth and income inequality fueled by hundreds of billions of dollars of tax breaks for the top one percent from many tax loopholes described in the report.
Not only does child poverty cost far more than eliminating it would, we have so many better choices that reflect more just values as well as economic savings. We believe that food, shelter, quality early childhood investments to get every child ready for school and an equitable education for all children should take precedence over massive welfare for the rich and blatantly excessive spending for military weapons that often do not work. If we built 485 fewer of the planned 2,500 F-35s that still don’t work reliably and are over budget we could fund the $77 billion required to lift 60 percent of our children from poverty now as their minds and bodies are developing.
President Eisenhower, a former five star general, reminded us that: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies…a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hope of its children.” Yet we are spending $48.2 billion a month; $11.1 billion a week; $1.6 billion a day; $66 million an hour; $1.1 million a minute; and $18,323 a second on the military.
If we love America and love our children we must all stand against the excessive greed and militarism that tramples millions of our children entrusted to our care. America’s Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” After more than two centuries, it is time to make those truths evident in the lives of all poor children and to close our intolerable national hypocrisy gap and show the world whether democratic capitalism is an oxymoron or can work in a majority non-White world desperate for moral example. Please download a copy of Ending Child Poverty Now, share it widely with your networks and then take action. Together, acting with urgency and persistence, we can end preventable and devastating child poverty across our country. A nation that does not stand for its children does not stand for anything and will not stand tall in the 21st century world or before God.
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 Startand 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’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.