Marian Wright Edelman House Budget Committee Hearing Testimony

For Immediate Release
April 30, 2014
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“The budget is not fair, Mr. Chair, if 69 percent of the cuts comes from programs for low-income children and families and we are giving extra tax cuts to the wealthiest among us and without requiring offsets in the budget—if we can afford to give new tax extenders to wealthy corporations and people, we can afford to expand Head Start for every child and to make sure that every child is housed and is fed. We should be fair.”


Marian Wright Edelman Testifies Before House Budget Committee


Washington, DC, Apr. 30, 2014 – Today, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, delivered the remarks below in the House Budget Committee Hearing, A Progress Report on the War on Poverty: Lessons from the Frontlines.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN:  Thank you, Mr. Chair and Ranking Member Van Hollen and Members of this Committee.

Bob, I would really like to see the research that supports that 70 percent of the money is going to —

ROBERT WOODSON:  I would be delighted to.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN:  I'd like to see the basis of that.

ROBERT WOODSON:  I would be delighted to.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN:  And I applaud your work, and I would like to extend my own invitation to Members of this Committee to come out into some communities where we are organizing with poor parents and trying to empower them and to meet some of the 800 young people who have, despite homelessness and gun violence and abandonment by adults and living in the worst neighborhoods, are beating the odds and going on to college, and many of them over the last 22 years when we have been celebrating them are now doctors and lawyers and Peace Corps volunteers. I agree that we ought to figure out what has worked, what has made the difference, and then build on that success.

So I'd love to invite you out to our public housing organizing in Nashville. I'd love to have you meet some of the 125,000 children who have gone through Freedom Schools and the parents who come to weekly parent workshops because people want to do better and they want to be self-sufficient, and so we should build on what's working, and I appreciate the opportunity to be here today to share that over the last 50 years, we have really made good, strong progress in preventing and eliminating poverty, but we must stay the course and resist those who say the war on poverty has not worked. And while we must work out in community, we must pull them out one on one. We must pull them out school by school. We've also got to have a fair set of structures and political priorities in our nation. You've got to have both, and so I just want to emphasize that as we move forward.

Let me just start with one example. One of the young leaders that we have is typical, and we've got many of them to show you. We'd love to introduce you to them. It's Michael Tubbs, and he has been through our Youth Leadership Program, grew up poor in Stockton, California, the son of a teen mom and an incarcerated father. In his first 5 years, his mother was on welfare, and a lot of the government entitlement programs, Michael says "helped me, though." Despite that welfare, he got Head Start, "And that made me learn how to love to read, and that was something that the government opened a path for me at an early age."

He had quality magnet programs in public schools that pushed him to achieve academically and Pell grants that helped him go through Stanford University and get a bachelor's and a master's degree, and he took advantage of absolutely everything that Stanford offered, graduated last year after receiving the Truman Scholarship and Stanford's highest award, the Dinkelspiel Award that is given to an undergraduate. And at 22, when he called up to say he was going to run for city council, I said, "Well, don't mind if you don't win the first couple times." Well, he own, and he's now the youngest city councilman in Stockton's history. And investing in these young leaders—and we have no right to give up on any child and make sure that we're trying to level the playing field, and while we can bring them and do training down at Haley Farm, they also need to have the public safety net that gives them the opportunity and can move it to scale. And we are very proud of Michael and other young children like them.

We know that the poverty programs and the safety net programs have made a great difference. Our statement, which has been put into the record, shows that a December 2013 study from Columbia University shows that after taking into account government benefits, the United States has reduced child poverty by over one-third since 1967 and extreme child poverty by nearly 40 percent, despite the fact that unemployment has more than doubled then.

Millions of children have seen their lives improved over the last 50 years by food stamps, now the SNAP program. I still call them "food stamps," but Medicaid, the CHIP program, the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, Social Security, Head Start, Early Head Start, the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, among others, have made an enormous difference in the lives of millions and tens of millions of folk, and that's very important. All of our charity is not a substitute for justice and for fair allocation of public resources, and so I hope you will be proud of what these safety net programs have done. 9 million children in 2012, one in eight, were able to escape poverty from these safety net programs from the government. 3.3 million children kept out of poverty by EITC, and 2.2 million by SNAP with the food stamp program. Without these, poverty would have been even higher by nearly 60 percent, and extreme child poverty, research clearly shows by 240 percent. We need both fair government investments as well as helping hands and encouragement of self-help.

We have reduced infant mortality by 75 percent over the last 50 years, and we have increased high school graduation rates by 19 percent and college graduation rates, thanks to Pell grants and other supports by 160 percent. And we have learned that these survival programs have had long-term positive benefits for children.

A recent study of the long-term effects of what became or began the food stamp program showed that children not only didn't go hungry—and I guess I keep trying to say that children don't come in pieces, and so what goes on in their health status and what goes on in their nutrition life and what goes on in their communities all affect things. And food stamps have been—those who got food stamps were far less likely to have stunted growth, to be obese, to have heart disease as adults, but more importantly, they also did better educationally. And they were 18 percent more likely to graduate from high school. When poor children's basic needs are met as they are growing up, they do better in school, and all of us benefit. Far from creating a poverty trap, these programs help children thrive and succeed, and we need more of them and a greater investment.

And those who say they don't work, I think they should really look at the evidence. The real poverty trap that these people claim a lot of the investments and safety nets are, the real poverty trap is the absence of good jobs, and they become very hard to find—and the minimum wage, which is now 22 percent less than it was in 1964. It is a fact the poverty trap is that our economy has stopped working for working people and for the middle class, and we have seen the growth and income and wealth inequality, and millions more have been left behind because we do not have a level playing field in our investment policies. And what is good for the rich should be good for the poor, and we should be looking at our budget investments as things that bring people together, close the divisions, closing the gaps between us and the have-nots, and if government welfare with big corporations is okay, it should be also okay for poor children.

We really do know a lot about what works, but we have got to invest in all of our children, building on the successes of many of the safety net programs. There is no greater threat to our economic and military security than the fact that almost 60 percent of all of our children in fourth and eighth grade can't read, and almost 75 percent of our Latino children and 80 percent of our black children can't read. These are the children who are going to be our future military and workforce. We need to be investing in them now and not cutting the investments they need to be healthy and hungry and housed and positive about the future.

We need to build on and make sure that we are being fair in our budget approaches. The budget is not fair, Mr. Chair, and if 69 percent of the cuts comes from programs for low-income children and families and we are giving extra tax cuts to the wealthiest among us and without requiring offsets in the budget—if we can afford to give new tax extenders to wealthy corporations and people, we can afford to expand Head Start for every child and to make sure that every child is housed and is fed. We should be fair.

What do we propose that you do? I have a long statement, but the three things I want to really emphasize today—

We must ensure that these safety net programs, which have had a demonstrable impact on tens of millions of children, continue to be there as long as our economy is not functioning, as we have got these high unemployment wages. As long as our wages are stagnating and as long as we have too few jobs, we must keep these children fed and housed and educated, and I hope that you will not really cut more, these things that are working for children. We should have no poor children in the richest nation on Earth. It's a shame. It is a moral blight, and it's an economic—huge economic threat that we have 16.1 million poor children and over 7 million are living in extreme poverty in the richest nation on Earth. We don't have a money problem. We have a profound values and priorities problem, and we need to change it in the budgets, and your budget priority should reflect that. So let's make sure that we maintain these programs and don't continue to cut them. They are not perfect, but the F-35 is not perfect either. And the research base for Head Start is a whole lot stronger than what seems to be the things from many of our military systems. Let's be even-handed in how we invest and apply standards that are going to be fair to the poorest and the weakest among us.

Secondly, let's put into place what every other industrialized nation, competitive nation has, which is a high-quality early childhood system. Let's prevent poverty from occurring. We need to get children ready for school, and we now know from the research and from what the economists all tell us that the investment in those early years in quality programs from zero up through Early Head Start and to Head Start and child care and preschools, very, very important. And I hope that we will enact—or you will enact in this Congress this year and without delay, a way to make sure that every child gets ready for school.

The military says this is important, because they are concerned that 74 percent of the 17- to 24-year-olds cannot get into the military, because they can't read, meet the literacy levels, are obese, are in poor health, or have prior incarceration rates. The prison people are telling us we need this, because they understand they are going to pay-us-later-more people, and that the most important thing we can do is to make sure that people get a good education and stay out of their prison system. Our states are spending on average two times more per prison than for public school pupil. That's about the dumbest investment policy I can think of. We have got to break up this cradle-to-prison pipeline that is afflicting one in three black boys, one in six Latino boys. It's not right, and so we've got to create a level playing field and be fair in our investment policies for the weakest and the poorest among us, and this is going to be our undoing if we don't reverse that early childhood system. And I hope the Strong Start Act the President is proposing, a $90 billion investment over 10 years—we could pay for that and have a lot left over if we share some of that set of tax breaks for the richest here we are going to extend, which could add up to over $200 billion. We don't have a money problem. Again, we have a priorities problem and a value problem.

And the third thing, we need to make sure that we are creating jobs and jobs and jobs, that we lift the minimum wage, and that will help [hundreds of thousands] of people get out of poverty. We need to make work pay, and again, I just can't emphasize too strongly. Republican and Democratic Presidents have supported making work pay and making sure that the tax credits like EITC and the child tax credit stay in place.

I just hope that we will heed the economic evidence about the important investment in preventing poverty. I hope that we will listen to the cries of children, because it is so much cheaper to prevent these problems than to try to solve them later on. I hope you will look at the research on what works, and we know a lot now over the last 40, 50 years about what does work and about the importance of investing in children early and the importance of equality and the importance of education. And I hope that we will be fair in the allocation of our national resources in making sure that we are helping every child have hope for the future.

I will end with just my brief story about why I got into Children's Defense Fund. It is that the day after Dr. King was assassinated, calling for Poor People's Campaign, I went out into the schools, but there were riots all over the country. And I went out into the D.C. schools and talked to children, tell them not to riot and not to loot and not to ruin their future. A little boy about 12 years old a little black boy about 12 years old, looked me in the eye and said, "Lady, what future? I ain't got no future. I ain't got nothing to lose," and I have spent the last 50 years and will spend the rest of my life trying to prove that boy's truth wrong in our economically powerful and militarily powerful but spiritually poor nation. It's time to answer his question.

It's time to really begin to create a level playing field for every child in this country. That is what the American dream says it's supposed to do.  If we don't stand up for our children, we are not going to stand tall in the future, and we would not deserve to stand tall. So I just hope we will do what is right, and that we will not let more children go hungry, let more children go homeless, let more children go poor, let more children go uneducated, when we have the means but not the commitment and the will to do it. So I hope your budget will begin and be fair and to reflect the priorities that every child needs to have a chance to grow up to be whole and productive and to contribute to the society.

The testimony can be viewed on YouTube. Mrs. Edelman also provided written testimony, which can be accessed on the Children’s Defense Fund’s website at www.childrensdefense.org.