05.02.14

Creating Better Futures for Our Children

One of my favorite Earth, Wind and Fire songs (and I have many) is Remember the Children.  For many elected officials, children are often forgotten because simply they do not vote or make campaign contributions.  Another problem is that it is nearly impossible to get resources to children without passing it through parents and other caretakers.  Obviously poor children have poor parents who are regarded largely as failures in life for not sufficiently capitalizing on the wealth of opportunities in our great nation.  So, should children just be left behind?  The late Marvin Gaye thought about this back in 1971 when he recorded Save the Children.  As poverty has once again taken center stage during the 50-year retrospective of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, and as a consequence of escalating economic inequality, the plight of poor children has not been the focus of many policy discussions.

The House Budget Committee led by Republican Rep. Paul Ryan conducted a hearing yesterday on the progress of the War on Poverty inviting people “on the frontlines” to provide their perspectives.  Ryan mentioned children once but only as a reference to one of the witnesses.  Two other presenters mentioned children three times each in their testimony.  Only Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, focused on children in her testimony—referencing them 92 times.  She is often the lone voice for children in the policy arena.

[Poor Children] Saving the children should be the primary focus of any anti-poverty agenda, yet using child poverty as a measure of success demonstrates how far off the mark current anti-poverty policies have been.  According to a National Center for Children in Poverty brief, children under 18 years old are 23 percent of the U. S. population but they comprise 34 percent of people in poverty.  More than a fifth (22 percent) lived below the poverty threshold in 2012 and nearly half (45 percent) lived in low-income families, living on less than 200 percent of the poverty level.  The trend is moving in the wrong direction from 40 percent in 2006 to 45 percent in 2012.  According to Kids Count data, the number of children who lived in extreme poverty—less than half of the poverty threshold—grew from 8 percent (5.7 million) in 2008 to 10 percent (7.4 million) in 2012.  These are discouraging statistics.

It would seem that our policy agenda should focus on ensuring as many children as possible escape poverty and become productive taxpaying citizens.  Instead we seem to be content with allowing too many children to be neglected, warehoused in special education classes, denied culturally and intellectually uplifting experiences, and left without the essential education and tools needed to live meaningful lives.  Conservatives argue rightly, that it is the role of the family and not the government to provide these essential activities.  But the vast majority of poor families lack the resources and the social networks to do this, many of the heads of these households were poor children themselves.  The government must provide a social safety net.

Conservatives like Ryan believe that rescuing children from poverty should be left to churches and other charitable groups when parents fail to provide the nurturing and resources needed.  Many parents fail—not because they are bad parents—but because they are lacking the resources needed as described in an article in today’s New York Times.  Norm Ornstein—a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank—says Ryan cannot have it both ways.  He cannot portray himself as genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor while promoting policies that eviscerate the social safety net.

So how do we begin crafting policies that will significantly reduce child poverty in the United States?  We can begin with Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University, who worked with policymakers in the United Kingdom to cut child poverty in half in five years at the beginning of the century.  Her book, Britain’s War on Poverty, offers policy prescriptions that legislators in the United States could adopt.  We can get behind Social Work Caucus chair Rep. Barbara Lee and others who have made poverty a central theme of their policy agendas.  It is time we move past ideological battles and focus on creating better futures for America’s children.

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