My father told me I could do and be anything I wanted to be if I dreamed and worked hard enough for it. I took these words to heart, despite growing up in the Jim Crow era in Marlboro County, South Carolina. Today, too many children in Marlboro County and throughout America are not being taught to dream and to work hard for a better future. Unemployment in my home county has hovered between 16 and 20 percent for long periods of time and many children there have never seen anyone in their family able to find a job and go to work. I was deeply saddened by a story I heard recently about three young teen boys who were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. The first boy said he wanted to work at McDonald’s; the second boy said he wanted to be Spiderman and when pushed for a real person, he could not think of one; and the third boy drew a boy lying on the ground and said he was going to be dead before he grew up.
Hopelessness and despair are too often the products of poverty. Today, 15.5 million children are living in poverty in America—the highest child poverty rate the nation has seen since 1959. And the younger the children are the poorer they are. Recently released U.S. Census Bureau data confirmed our worst fears about the impact of the recent recession. Nearly four million Americans fell into poverty last year. And worst of all, children experienced the steepest rise in poverty and the largest single year increase since the 1960s.
Back in the 1960s, as a civil rights lawyer working in Mississippi, I learned that civil rights without economic rights did not add up to justice. After two civil rights bills had passed and three years into President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, the condition for poor Black Americans in Mississippi was not improving beyond a snail’s pace. When U.S. Senators Joseph Clark and Robert F. Kennedy and other lawmakers came to the Delta of Mississippi to see how the War on Poverty was going with their own eyes, the swollen bellies and empty cupboards shocked them into action and led them to call for reform and expansion of the child and family nutrition programs we know today including food stamps, WIC and school lunches.
Still believing that fair people will take action when they see and hear about the plight of poor children, I asked Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass to go to the Delta in Mississippi, the ravaged cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana, and to the birthplace of the suburban American dream, in Long Island, New York, and find those children and tell their stories today. The result is the Children’s Defense Fund’s new report “Held Captive”: Child Poverty in America. I’ll be sharing stories from this report in several future columns.
Held Captive puts human faces on the statistics that tell the frightening and heartbreaking reality of how poverty is impacting millions of America’s children. Julia Cass found that despite safety net protections put in place over the past generations, poor children are still adrift in a sea of poverty with their futures in jeopardy. Years of research link childhood poverty to a multitude of poor outcomes: lower academic attainment, higher rates of teen pregnancy and incarceration, a greater chance of health and behavioral problems, and lifelong poverty. The greatest threat to America’s national security comes from no enemy without but from our own failure to protect, invest in, and educate all of our children who make up all of our futures in this global economy.
We need to invest now in child health, early childhood development, and education. For today is tomorrow. Children have only one childhood and it is right now. God has blessed America with great material wealth. America can and must step forward to correct the gross imbalance of government subsidization of the wealthiest and most powerful among us and provide a future for all children free from hunger, hopelessness, and despair. If America cannot stand up for its children it does not stand for anything at all. And it will not stand strong in our competitive, global world.