PHOTO: Marian Wright Edelman founder of The Children’s Defense Fund talked to The Skanner about the barriers facing low-income children – especially children of color. Edelman also wanted to hear about Portland’s efforts to support children and families.There wasn't time to tell her about all the amazing people and projects working for children in Portland. That list is too long. But Edelman promised to return and says she wants to learn more about Portland's efforts to support poor children and families.
Marion Wright Edelman sweeps through the lounge of the Heathman Hotel, in search of a quiet corner to talk. The public rooms are all booked so we settle for a nook in the lounge, and agree to ignore the piped music.
History will call her a giant of the U.S. civil rights movement. In person, she’s more like your favorite auntie, picture perfect in a cute, yellow felt jacket and oversize red glasses. Around her neck she wears a string of amber and yellow beads and a small framed photo of Sojourner Truth.
The first Black woman to be appointed to the Mississippi state bar, Edelman took the helm of the state’s NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1964. She strategized with Robert Kennedy and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to build the poor people’s campaign that turned into the historic 1968 March on Washington.
After King was murdered, Edelman founded the Children's Defense Fund to research and lobby on behalf of poor and minority children. That was more than 40 years ago, but Edelman has never stopped fighting for poor children. And she’s lost none of her passion.
“In Oregon one in four of your children is poor –the figure is one in five nationally – but over half of your Black children are poor,” she laments. “It’s disgraceful.”
Edelman is in Portland visiting family –son Jonah leads the Oregon-based nonprofit Stand for Children. Still, she’s carved out time to talk about why so many American children are failing almost before they get started in life.
Poverty is Still Enemy Number One
Child Poverty is still America’s toughest challenge, Edelman says.
“The biggest threat to America’s economic, military and national security does not come from any outside enemy,” she says. “It comes from our failure to invest in and educate our children.”
The Children’s Defense Fund’s latest report, The State of America’s Children 2014, (using statistics from the U.S. Census 2010 American Community Survey) show that of America’s 73.9 million children, more than 16.4 million are poor. And 7.4 million of them live in extreme poverty, with children under five worst affected. Other highlights --or low points – include:
1 in 5 children in poverty
4 in 10 Black children (39.6 percent) in poverty
1.2 million school students homeless
80 percent of Black and 75 percent of Hispanic students can’t read or compute at grade level
78 percent of students graduated from public high school in four years in 2010. But that rate was 66 percent for Black students, 69 percent for American Indian/Alaska Native students and 71 percent for Hispanic students.
We Lock Poor Children out of The American Dream
Edelman says the statistics make a mockery of The American Dream. The dream itself –a lofty vision of human rights –is a noble and worthy dream, she says. But resource-starved families have been locked out.
“We’ve made huge progress, but we didn’t put the economic underpinnings beneath the political and civil rights,” she says.
“We have this incredible income inequality –taking from the bottom and the middle to give to the top –and our Congress seems to absolutely have no sense that they should stop. In recent weeks, with the Ryan budget and the Ways and Means Committee, they have just extended corporate tax cuts to the tune of $310 billion…giving again to the top. And at the same time they voted against a $12 Million foster care bill giving children identification and the paperwork they need to succeed as adults.
“What Kind of country does that?”
In the Ryan budget, Edelman points out, more than two-thirds of the cuts come from programs that help poor families, such as: the food program SNAP, Medicaid, school lunch programs, tax credits and childcare assistance for low-income workers.
These programs are not without some flaws, Edelman says. No program is perfect. Yet in 2010 the federal Earned Income Tax Credit lifted 3.3 million children out of poverty, and the Child Tax Credit protected another 1.4 million children.
Which is why she is hopping mad about the proposed cuts.
“The last thing we should be doing is letting more children go hungry, letting more children go without healthcare; letting more children go homeless, when we’re giving to those at the top.”
Research confirms Edelman’s concerns. At the Urban Institute, for example, researchers Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan found that unless government creates strong programs to support struggling families, the poorest children have little chance of escaping the circumstances they were born into.
Poor families are unstable. They lack sufficient food, medical care and housing. Poor children are exposed to more violence. They have less community support. That’s how child poverty translates into dismal dropout rates for Black and Latino children.
It’s a tremendous loss of human potential, Edelman says. And it is hurting America.
“What is a child going to do without an education in this globalizing competitive world? They are being sentenced to social and economic death. We are going to miss the boat to the future if we don’t stand up for children. A country that does not stand up for its children is not going to stand tall in the future.”
Have We Adults Lost our Minds?
Edelman knows better than anyone that her 40-year fight against child poverty has seen as many setbacks as triumphs. The year she founded the Children’s Defense Fund, 1973, turned out to be one of the better years for overall poverty rates. Since then the total number of people in poverty has more than doubled. And while child poverty, is less today than it was in 1973, the lowest rate – 14 percent -- was recorded in 1969.
In her Child Watch column, carried in dozens of Black newspapers across the nation, Edelman was among the first to recognize and describe the “School to Prison Pipeline.” Ony she calls it the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” because children born into poverty are disadvantaged, even before they start school. But she doesn’t let schools off the hook either.
“The prison pipeline is fed by schools and zero tolerance discipline policies,” she says. “Why do you put a child out of school for being truant and tardy? I’ve never understood that. You find out why the child is not in school and you get them in. You don’t suspend or expel them. Civil rights data shows we’re expelling four-year-old and five year-old boys. From preschool!
“Have we adults lost our minds?”
And don’t get her started on guns. On average eight children die from gunshots every day. Gunshots are the number one cause of death for Black children and teens.
“These children are living in war zones. A child is killed or injured by a gun every 30 minutes. What kind of country lets its children be killed by guns and does not do something about it?”
“I am so sick of adults blaming children when it really is an adult problem.”
We are All Part of the Solution
Steeped in the research, Edelman knows the facts and figures by heart. But she’s not discouraged. She believes that if we work together any community has the power to raise children out of poverty, by ensuring they succeed in education.
Children’s Defense Fund programs such as Freedom Schools and the Black Community Crusade for Children put grassroots community members at the center of the rescue effort. Teaching children their history, mentoring them, and empowering them, starts with each one of us, Edelman says.
The civil rights generation made huge changes with far less resources than we have today, she points out.
“They wanted their children to have a better life—and they really went through everything to get that reality. So what’s our excuse today?”
For a start Edelman would make sure our youngest children are cared for in high quality early childhood programs.
“In most states childcare costs the equivalent of sending your child to a four-year public college,” she says. “So we’ve got to put that early childhood system in place to get all of our children ready for school. Because we know that education is the ticket to the future.”
The White House is on board with that message. President Obama has proposed a $90 billion-10-year investment to support early head start, childcare and home visits for at-risk parents.
All it would take to make this happen for Black youth, Edelman says, is for the entire Black community to come together in one voice. In fact, she says, African American women alone could do it.
“If we just decide to do like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman did and worry them to death, we’ve got all the power we need.
“And don’t let any politician tell you we can’t afford to do it. If they can give another $310 billion for corporate extenders then we can find $90 Billion for our children.
“But the point is we have got to make a commitment to loving our children more than anybody else does—nobody is going to love them as much as we do.”