The Children's Defense Fund has just released a new report, The State of America's Children 2011, which paints a disturbing portrait of child needs across our country. With rampant unemployment, housing foreclosures, homelessness, hunger, and massive looming federal and state budget cuts, children's well-being is in great jeopardy. One in five children is poor and children are our nation's poorest age group. Child poverty increased almost 10 percent between 2008 and 2009, the largest single year increase since data were first collected. Fifteen and a half million children are adrift in a sea of poverty, and every 32 seconds another child is born poor. As our country struggles to climb out of the recession millions of our children are falling further behind.
Although there are more poor White than poor Black or Latino children, worsening income inequality and continuing racial disparities have an extra harsh combined impact on poor children of color. Many are pushed off the path of healthy development and into the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. Poor children are more likely to live in fragile families, lag in early childhood development, suffer abuse and neglect, be uninsured and in poor health, be denied a quality education, and experience other gaps that put them far behind non-poor peers. Millions of Black children are facing one of the worst crises since slavery, and in many areas, Hispanic and American Indian children are not far behind.
In the face of these deeply disturbing and growing child needs, some of our political leaders are heedlessly and heartlessly proposing that children, who have no belts to tighten, sacrifice their food and Head Start and other survival needs while asking nothing in sacrifice from powerful billionaires and corporations. Policies, programs, and essential services that we know help children survive and thrive—Medicaid and CHIP (the Children's Health Insurance Program), the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant, WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children), SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Food Stamps), Early Head Start and Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, the Title I Education Program designed to help disadvantaged children, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs, Pell Grants, the Social Services Block Grant, and others—are all threatened with federal cuts and/or program changes that will further unravel the already porous safety net provided for poor children.
These looming federal cuts will compound cascading cuts in state and local funding for urgently needed early childhood development, K-12 education, higher education, mental health and other specialized treatment, and services for children in foster care and the juvenile justice system. Family stress has increased while family stability has deteriorated, with lost jobs, reduced unemployment compensation, restricted assistance and public health programs, and more scarce affordable housing.
As the President and Congress struggle to find a way to lower the budget deficit and to raise the debt ceiling before we default on our debt for the first time in history, I hope this new report on the perilous state of millions of our children will deter them from further cuts in essential food, health, education, and other supports children need. And I hope they will remember that children did not cause the budget deficit and hurting them will not solve it. They need to address the unjust federal tax benefits enjoyed by the wealthiest corporations and individuals, some of whom pay not a penny in taxes and enjoy tax rates lower than working families whose modest incomes do not allow them to make ends meet.
We know that poverty impairs children's emotional, intellectual, and physical development and ends up costing our nation billions of dollars in lost productivity and increased health care costs. We know how to give children a healthy start, rescue them from the wolf of hunger, and keep them well-nourished. We know how to give children a head start to help them get ready for and be better able to achieve in school. We know how to provide children a quality education. Yet how pound foolish to cut early childhood programs, school days, recess, and teachers they need to succeed. We know how to prevent child abuse and neglect, find permanent families for children in foster care, and keep children out of our costly and ineffective juvenile justice system. How foolish to cut the investments that could keep children out of trouble and of jail. To paraphrase what our mothers and grandmothers taught us, if you know better, you should do better. What is it going to take to get our leaders to get it?
Our vulnerable children must not be sacrificial lambs on the altar of adult politics. As CDF's faith allies gather at the Annual Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry at CDF-Haley Farm, the urgency of resisting misguided budget choices is reflected in our theme this year, "Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue: Answering God's Call to Protect Children." Every person of faith should revisit the prophets and the gospels and the tenets of all great faiths that require us as individuals, congregations, and communities to answer God's call to nurture and protect all children. I hope our public officials will think hard, too, about what they value and whether their choices will contribute towards a more or less unified and just nation for all.
Marian Wright Edelman is a lifelong advocate for disadvantaged Americans and is the President of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation's strongest voice for children and families.