In a country where 13 million children live in poverty and 9 million are uninsured, most of them in working families, money determines a lot about the circumstances that affect children's health. Health shouldn't depend on wealth — but far too often it does.
For a child, wealth might determine whether or not your parents can afford to pick up the phone and take you to the doctor every time you're sick — or whether they may end up putting off care so long that a routine illness lands you in the emergency room. Even if your family has some health coverage, wealth might determine if you can go to the dentist when you have a toothache, get glasses when you can't see the blackboard or talk to a mental health professional when your family is facing a crisis — or whether those things are just "frills."
Wealth might determine whether you live in a home with clean air — or whether you live in a home where you're exposed to peeling lead paint, or insects, rodent droppings, dust and mold that aggravate your asthma, and whether you spend eight hours every school day in an old, run-down building that has the same problems. It might also determine whether your family can afford fresh fruits and vegetables, or whether it relies mainly on less expensive, less healthy packaged and fast food.
Wealth might determine whether your family lives in a neighborhood with green playgrounds and parks — or whether you live next to a treatment plant or power lines, in a neighborhood with no place to run and play. Wealth might also determine whether you live in a neighborhood where you're not allowed to play outside at all and where you're more likely to be a victim of gun violence.
In the wealthiest nation on earth, the fact that we still can't promise a healthy start to all children is shameful. I first learned lessons about race and health as a little girl growingupinsegregated Bennettsville, S.C. I remember when little Johnny Harrington, who lived three houses down from my church parsonage, stepped on and died from a nail because his grandmother had no doctor to advise her and no money to pay for health care. I also remember the migrant family who collided with a truck on the highway near my home, and the ambulance driver who refused to take them to the hospital because they were Black.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane. Forty years later, Black children are almost twice as likely and Latino children almost three times as likely as White children to be uninsured. It's unacceptable that access to health care and to safe, clean places to live and play are still separate and unequal for so many Americans.
Some people may think our nation just can't afford to cover its 9 million uninsured children. But the recent round of $1.9 trillion in tax cuts, when fully in effect, will give the richest 1 percent of all taxpayers $57 billion each year. That's more than twice as much as would be needed to provide health coverage to all 9 million uninsured children for a whole year.
We also spend almost $6 billion every month on the war in Iraq. Less than four months of this spending would also pay for health coverage for every uninsured child in this country.
The fact that our nation doesn't yet guarantee all its children a healthy start is a problem for all of us. But it is a problem that we — as a nation — can afford to fix.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.