Youth Justice


A theologian friend took her car to a Jiffy Lube for servicing. Not having anything to read, she picked up a manual on the coffee table about boating. A chapter on the rules for what happens when boats encounter one another on the open sea described two kinds of craft: burdened and privileged. The craft with power that can accelerate and push its way through the waves, change direction, and stop on demand is the burdened one. The craft dependent on the forces of nature, wind, tide, and human effort to keep going is the privileged craft. Since powerful boats can forge their way forward under their own power, they are burdened with responsibility to give the right of way to the powerless or privileged vessels dependent on the vagaries of the tide, wind, and weather. “Who wrote this thing?” my friend asked. “Mother Teresa? What’s going on in our land when the New Jersey State Department of Transportation knows that the powerful must give way if the powerless are to make safe harbor and the government of the United States and the church of Jesus Christ and other people of God are having trouble with the concept?”

How do we answer her, political, faith, and community leaders and citizens of our nation? What is our “theory of action” or values compass as we seek solutions to rampant joblessness and poverty among millions of Americans including 16.4 million poor children according to national U.S. census data released last week? What beyond politics and unbridled greed and power will calibrate our nation’s decision making? Is cutting helpless babies the same as cutting some of the many budget busting tax loopholes for millionaires and billionaires? Is cutting our children’s teachers, nutrition supplements, Head Start and child care the same as cutting powerful corporate subsidies or tax breaks for corporate jets? A child cut from health care or unable to get services when abused or neglected may never heal. Is it right or fair for Congress to wield a budget guillotine—called sequestration—if a Super Committee of 12 cannot reach a responsible agreement on both revenue and budget cuts? This will leave a range of discretionary programs for children, the poor and middle class, and seniors on the chopping block. Does the irresponsible no new tax pledge signed by an astounding 279 current members of Congress (238 Representatives and 41 Senators), including the six Republican members of the Congressional “Super Committee,” make the latter an irrelevant and unjust nonstarter? Are the hungry child and the huge corporate farmer who gets massive government “subsidies” (welfare) equally responsible for the deficit? I am reminded of French writer Anatole France’s passage in The Red Lily: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Is that our leaders’ and nation’s code of morality and justice? If so, the very dream and idea of an America where all have a fair chance and level playing field is dead.

According to new national U.S. census data, over 46 million people in America are poor—more than the entire combined populations of Iraq and Niger. A 2010 front page New York Times story reported that one in 50—or six million—people in America had no income and depended on food stamps to stave off the wolves of hunger. It provoked almost no response. Children—the most vulnerable and least culpable among us for the deficit—are the poorest age group. And the younger they are the poorer they are. Inadequate national and state investment in early childhood and education, and government’s failure to protect children now from continuing economic downturn, are making them poorer. More than one million children fell into poverty between 2009 and 2010; almost a half million fell into extreme poverty.

It is disgraceful that the number of poor children in our rich nation is greater than the entire combined populations of Haiti and Liberia—two of the poorest countries on earth and that the number of children in extreme poverty is equivalent to the whole population of Israel. The number of poor children under age five, the years of greatest brain development, is more than the population of Sierra Leone. I have yet to hear political leaders in either party nationally or in the states say we will not cut young children who have no belts to tighten. I believe no child cuts and no cuts for the poor should trump no tax increases for the rich in a just society.

The budget debate today and the role of our national government is about who we are or want to be as Americans. Who is government—our collective voice—designed to protect? The powerful or the powerless, some or all of us? Whose responsibility is it to ensure all our children are healthy, housed, educated, and prepared to join a workforce to compete with and out innovate the Chinese and others in 5, 10, or 15 years? Parents cannot achieve this alone especially when millions of jobs and homes have been lost. Will cutting child and family nutrition, early childhood programs, education, child care and after-school enrichment programs, and youth jobs close or widen the huge wealth and income gaps between rich and poor? Will these cuts make us a more or less secure society? Where has our common sense gone? Where has our moral sense gone? Are there no bottom lines? Will children’s lives continue to be cut, ignored, and neglected because they don’t vote or lobby or make campaign contributions? Will they continue to be punished for parents they did not choose and are not responsible for? Do we just let them die, go homeless, hungry, and unhealthy when jobless parents cannot provide the basic necessities of life through no fault of their own?

The Children’s Defense Fund’s trademarked logo is based on the old fisherman’s prayer—”Dear Lord be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” It shows a tiny little sail boat on a vast sea drawn by a young child many years ago based on the prayer. Never has it seemed more poignant and appropriate than today as our children are being tossed all about in a rough and uncertain sea of life without rafts by killer economic and political waves from the wakes of gigantic, powerful ocean liners—capsizing small child boats. Is our nation protecting the Titanic—a burdened boat enjoined to give right of way—rather than protecting the child’s small privileged boat struggling without power to reach safe harbor?

What can you do? Demand your political leaders protect the child’s small boat—the privileged boat—and tell the powerful burdened boat to give them the right of way.

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