Child Watch® Column: "Who Are We? What Do We Americans Truly Value?"

Release Date: March 6, 2015

Marian Wright Edelman

Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now is over $800 billion dollars a year... if we judge the United States of America by that... Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

--Senator Robert F. Kennedy

What do we stand for as a nation and who do we wish to be? In a 1968 speech at the University of Kansas, Senator Robert Kennedy correctly worried too many used our nation’s wealth as the standard of greatness rather than the human values that should matter most. Our Gross Domestic Product — now $17.7 trillion — includes many things for us not to be proud of. So we should ask ourselves how well America is doing on the things that should matter most—the well-being of our children and families and the quality of justice and life in our communities and nation?

Among high-income countries the United States ranks first in Gross Domestic Product and first in the number of billionaires, and second worst in child poverty rates – ahead only of Romania whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours. It is a national disgrace that children are the poorest group of Americans with 14.7 million living in poverty.

We are first in military spending — $11.1 billion a week — and first in military weapons exports.

We are first in the number of people incarcerated and worst in protecting our children against gun violence. A Black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a one in six chance of the same fate. Children and teens in America were 17 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than those in 25 other high-income countries combined.

We are 30th in preschool enrollment rates and 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math scores for our 15-year-olds. Nearly 60 percent of all fourth and eighth grade public school students in the U.S. and more than 80 percent of Black and almost 75 percent of Latino children in those same grades could not read or compute at grade level in 2013.

We rank first in health expenditures but 25th in low birth weight rates, 26th in child immunization rates, 31st in infant mortality rates, and second worst in teenage births – just ahead of Bulgaria.

If we compare Black child well-being in America to child well-being in other nations, the U.S. Black infant mortality rate exceeds that in 65 nations including Cuba, Malaysia, and Ukraine. Our incidence of low-birth weight Black infants is higher than in 127 other nations including Cambodia, the Congo, and Guatemala.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child spells out the basic rights children should have everywhere and is the most widely and rapidly ratified international human rights treaty in history. For years the United States and Somalia, which had no recognized government, were the only United Nations members that had failed to ratify the convention. In January 2015 Somalia became the 195th nation to do so. The United States now stands only with new U.N. member state South Sudan as the two countries that have not ratified it — and South Sudan has started working towards ratification.

The United States stands alone, despite recent progress, in still permitting life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders who were under 18 at the time of the offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has banned capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles but America remains one of 58 nations that continues to use capital punishment for adults. In 2013 the U.S. had the sixth highest number of executions — after China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.

If America wants to be a truly great nation on the world stage, it’s time to redefine the measures of our success. The litmus test I propose is that of the great German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for opposing Hitler’s holocaust, who said “the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” The great South African president Nelson Mandela agreed with him and believed “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” On the Bonhoeffer-Mandela measure of success, we must do much, much better.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

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Enter this word: Change

Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Aisha at: March 19, 2015
Dynamic! I believe morals are lacking in our new society.

Submitted by Peace First at: March 14, 2015
Remember, if you will, that many who joined Dr. King in Selma were there because they upheld the same 'equal rights' notion in spite of being white. Our nation must not allow a racial division to turn back the evolving progress we have made through incremental steps....often painful and with sacrifice, in order to "make a more perfect nation". If we are to survive, we must treat each other with respect and dignity.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 14, 2015
Babies are not born racist or mean. The next generation of parents and caregivers must do better to love, respect and care for their children so the will treat others as they have been treated. Thanks for all your hard work at the Chiildrens Defense Fund.

Submitted by Priscilla Gilman at: March 14, 2015
Right on!! Thank you and God less you for your persistence.

Submitted by Jim at: March 13, 2015
The strength and courage of those of you who marched in 1965 humbles and informs us white folks. We did not know, the true was denied us in the media and we were taught to interpret events through distorted, cloudy, bias. Your remarkable, courageous acts were not a part of our textbooks or shared by our teachers. The power of Dr. King's enduring words and deeds flows through the statements of Presidents Johnson and Obama. This nation must not retreat to its past inhuman treatment of persons supported by law and distortion of law and policy.

Submitted by Retired Teacher at: March 13, 2015
In 1965, it was all about the human rights of innocent victims. In 2015, it is about the "right" of criminals not to be punished. So sad.

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 13, 2015
These are empowering quotes and words by Marion Wright Edelman. She is an American Icon in the fight for equality in our nation. And children, whom her organization defends, are the victims of our history of ignorant prejudice.

Submitted by Felicia Jackson at: March 13, 2015
Each week, I am inspired by your words. You make a fellow Mississipian very proud to be a black woman from Mississippi. Thank you

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 12, 2015
Babies are not born racist. Babies are not born mean. What are adults doing to create mean, racist adults??

Submitted by Anonymous at: March 9, 2015
I will do all I can to help children.

Submitted by max at: March 8, 2015

Submitted by Paula at: March 7, 2015
The numbers are staggering, and with each day, we are heading so far off course, what will we leave our children's children's children?

Submitted by shoemaker at: March 7, 2015
unbeleveable billboard's poster's needed boot's on the street's

Submitted by Bernie at: March 7, 2015
This is powerful information that should be shared with everyone who is working with and for the welfare of children. I plan to give this to all my parenting classes and agencies that I work with so they can distribute this information . It is time for everyone to step up and care for the children and demand that the United States ratify the UN convention for rights for children. I stand with Marian Edelman and her comments.

Submitted by jodyann at: March 6, 2015
Powerful and right on. We must make the changes she discusses if we are to survive as a nation, it is our onlyhope.