Thousands of young people survived Hurricane Katrina, only to still find themselves facing an uncertain future over seven months later.
We are letting them down. This is not a time for business as usual, compassion fatigue or moving on to the next "story of the day." This is also not a time for corrupt or self-serving leadership — political, corporate, educational, professional or nonprofit — that hurts children and betrays public trust.
What kind of leaders ask poor children to sacrifice already inadequate health care, education, child care, Head Start and after-school programs to subsidize $1.9 trillion in tax cuts that mostly benefit the wealthiest and most powerful people and special interests? What kind of citizens and people of faith permit this travesty?
If ever there was a time of irresponsible disregard for children and the poor and for justice for all, it is now. And if ever there was a clear case study for why our rich nation should not wait another moment to adopt a coherent national health and mental health system for its people, it is Katrina's catastrophe, with children and survivors of all ages scattered across our land, facing 50 state bureaucracies without medical records.
Some states — like Texas — actually have cut back child health coverage and benefits for hundreds of thousands of children. Others, like Mississippi, have callously made it harder for children and families eligible for Medicaid and the federal Children's Health Insurance Program health benefits to get them by re-imposing face-to-face eligibility requirements and shorter eligibility time periods.
These costly and stressful bureaucratic obstacles will cause many poor people who lack transportation and awareness of changed policies — and are already living on the edge in strange places — to lose health and mental health care.
Current national political rhetoric and tax and budget choices tell us that the rich should be pampered and the poor plundered. The $1.9 trillion in tax cuts, when fully in effect, will give the richest 1 percent of all taxpayers $57 billion each year. This is enough to provide health coverage to all 9 million uninsured children or enough to end child poverty in America now.
Current national rhetoric and priorities also tell us our own might is our God. President George W. Bush's 2007 military budget seeks $527.4 billion a year — that's $44 billion a month, $10.1 billion a week, $1.4 billion a day and $60 million an hour. Just one month's military expenditure is more than twice as much as is needed to provide health coverage for all 9 million uninsured children.
The president's military budget includes more than $10.4 billion for Star Wars — the unproved (and not yet operational) missile defense system. That is enough money to lift 2.6 million children from poverty — every single poor child in four hurricane-affected states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas.
It is time for a new civil rights movement to reset America's moral and social compass and to restore hope, stability and a sense of future to Katrina's children — and all children in our lost nation. Katrina's children face specific emergency needs right now, but they and all children need their families, communities and leaders to ensure them a healthy and safe foundation in the early years and a chance to reach productive self-sufficient adulthood. They need families able to work at living wages with health care. They need good schools. They need equitable, quality integrated systems of care that prepare them for the future.
Katrina's children are America's opportunity — once again — to hear and heed God's call to protect the poor, the orphan, the widow and the vulnerable. Children are the transforming agents in our fractured nation and world. Dare we mistreat, neglect, abuse, kill and deny health care to a single one of them any longer?
Dare we value one over another or hold babies and children responsible for unwise adult choices over which children had no control? Dare the richest nation on earth continue to maintain an unjust playing field for children and continue to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots?
How will you use your voice, vote and organizational, professional and personal time to build the transforming movement our children need to live and learn and thrive and embrace the future with hope?
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.