At this transformative moment in American life with the election of Senator Barack Obama as our first African American and 44th President of the United States of America, we citizens must now roll up our sleeves and help translate this new presidency into a transformation of America’s investment priorities and values—real change.
Every child’s life has equal value and our nation has a responsibility to ensure every child a level playing field, healthy start and fair chance to achieve a successful future. We do not do that today. I believe our failure to protect and invest in all children is America’s economic and moral Achilles heel and will undermine our competitive leadership capacity in the 21st century’s globalized world economy. Do you think the following facts reflect a nation living out its creed and preparing for the future? We are 1st in gross domestic product; 1st in the number of billionaires in the world; 1st in health expenditures; 1st in military technology; 1st in defense expenditures; and 1st in military weapons exports. But we have the highest relative child poverty; the highest birth rates among teens (ages 15 to 19); we are last in protecting children against gun violence; we have the highest number of persons incarcerated; and we are the country with the widest gap between the rich and the poor.
If we just compare Black child well-being with other nations, 62 countries have lower infant mortality rates including Sri Lanka; more than 100 nations have lower rates of low birthweight births including Algeria, Botswana and Panama; and Black women in the United States are more likely to die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth than mothers in Uzbekistan. Yet, the United States of America and Somalia (which has no legally constituted government), have the distinction of being the only two United Nations members that have failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
It is time to change course and close the gap between rich and poor that is at its highest level ever recorded. We must also end the racial disparities in life chances. The first act our new President and Congress can take in 2009 to combat poverty and these racial disparities, which help push children into the cradle to prison pipeline, is to guarantee all nine million uninsured children and all pregnant women comprehensive health coverage as our country works to ensure health coverage for all 46 million uninsured Americans. Rash passage in early 2009 of an inadequate State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill tailored in 2008 to overcome a Bush veto (it didn’t), that would leave six million children behind and is not comprehensive, is not the change our children or nation need.
Options exist to do it right including extending SCHIP funding through 2009 and covering state budget shortfalls, until a more comprehensive bill is passed guaranteeing all uninsured children comprehensive benefits, regardless of the lottery of geography. The health care and lives of our babies and children should not depend on whether they live in red or blue or rich or poor states. Many more children are likely to be impoverished during this period of economic downturn, and many more will become uninsured and need help. So the need for a comprehensive health safety net is urgent but doable in 2009.
No one should say we cannot afford cost effective health coverage for all uninsured and underinsured children as some have said in 2008. Congress told us $70 billion could not be found over five years to cover all children with comprehensive guaranteed benefits and prenatal care for mothers. Instead Congress passed a $35 billion SCHIP bill funded by a tobacco tax but without needed reforms, leaving six million children behind. Yet they found $700 billion in a few weeks to bail out Wall Street, which so recklessly brought us to an economic standstill. The increasing job and housing losses require an adequate safety net to catch millions of children in a time of growing need. So I urge our new President and Congress to act thoughtfully yet urgently to meet the crucial health needs of nine million uninsured children and stimulate our economy through an expanded comprehensive child health bill, either as part of universal health coverage legislation or as a stand-alone first crucial step towards that goal. That’s the change children need now to get a healthy start in life.