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Child Watch® Column: "Bounced Checks From America's Bank of Opportunity"

Release Date: August 19, 2011

Marian Wright Edelman

As our nation pauses to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with the dedication of a new memorial on the anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, most will focus on only part of the story. When many Americans think of the historic March, they think of Dr. King standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his inspiring "I Have a Dream" words he spontaneously added at the very end of his speech. For nearly 50 years the powerful words in that section have been quoted all over the world. But too few people remember that the March on Washington wasn't focused just on racial equality but was actually named the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was a demand for economic opportunity and economic justice for all. Too few know or remember the central metaphor that made up the first half of Dr. King's speech: the bounced check America had written to its Black and poor citizens.

Dr. King said we had come to the nation's capital that August day to cash a check America had written nearly two hundred years earlier. He reminded us that when our nation's founders wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they had created a promissory note that guaranteed all Americans the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But instead of honoring that promise for Black Americans, America had defaulted on it and given us a bad check that had come back marked "insufficient funds." Dr. King said those of us who had come to the 1963 March on Washington—over 200,000 strong—were there to cash our checks because we refused to believe "the bank of justice is bankrupt" or that "there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation."

It is a message with special resonance this year and month as our nation's leaders are locked in bitter debates about our nation's insufficient funds, whether or not to default on our country's debts, whether rich and powerful individuals and corporations whose bank accounts are overflowing from the tax breaks and subsidies which drove up huge debts will be asked to contribute their fair share, and whether millions of hungry, homeless, poor, and poorly educated American children and families will be asked to sacrifice more and continue to receive bounced checks from the bank of economic opportunity and justice.

Congress is fighting the wrong national deficit. The real deficit every leader needs to address is our human deficit and the immoral values that drive some extremist political leaders to hijack the nation's economic wellbeing and sacrifice the lives of innocent children and the poor.

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF)'s recent The State of America's Children 2011 report shows millions of children and families fell into poverty in 2009 from the economic downturn, jeopardizing America's promise of a productive future for them and for our nation. One in every five children—15.5 million—was poor in 2009. Children of color, who will be a majority of our child population in 2019, continue to suffer disproportionately. In 2009 more than one in three Black and one in three Hispanic children lived in poverty compared to more than one in ten White non-Hispanic children. And the younger they are the poorer they are. These helpless poor babies cannot fight powerful corporate lobbyists and their political allies.

Child poverty is closely tied to economic opportunity. Although two-thirds of poor children live in families with at least one family worker, the available jobs and wages often aren't enough. A study prepared for CDF by Dr. Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, found the American dream and employment opportunities vanishing for countless poorly educated Black young people. In 2010 the unemployment, underemployment, and hidden unemployment rate for all Black 16 to 29-year-olds was a shocking 40 percent and 43 percent for Black males. The large number of young Black adults not working full-time jobs will severely limit their future employability, earnings, and ability to support their families.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, jobs and economic opportunities are still missing for huge numbers of Black families today, and millions of families of all races who are feeling the pain of soaring unemployment and low wages. In another new study Dr. Sum found: "To date, through the first quarter of 2011, the nation's recovery from the 2007-2009 recession is both a jobless and a wageless recovery… The only major beneficiaries of the recovery have been corporate profits and the stock market and its shareholders," with workers and their families left behind.

This was not Dr. King's dream. That is not and must not become America's dream. Those of us who refuse, like Dr. King, to believe that there are "insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation" need to stand up and demand that our leaders focus on the real economic deficit—jobs and economic opportunity for all and a world quality education for every child. Our children need to see their parents going to work and holding a job. Our children need the economic and emotional security employed parents provide. Our children need to know that if they work hard and get a good education there will be a good job in their future.

When Dr. King died calling for a Poor People's Campaign, there were 11 million poor children in America. Today, with 15.5 million poor children, millions living in extreme poverty, I've no doubt he'd be calling for a new Poor People's Campaign with a sense of urgency. He's not coming back. It's up to us to pick up the mantle of justice.

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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Freedom Fighter at: August 24, 2011
I met Marian Wright in 1963 in Greenwood and she has stayed the course for almost fifty years, never allowing the nation to forget its children. This needs to be, as stated above, more than a celebration. It needs to focus on what remains to be done and plans of action to get it done. Don't forget the children, the old, the dispossessed in the midst of this celebration. Dr. King said he didn't want any memorials and tributes. He said he wanted to be remembered as someone who fought for the least among us.

Submitted by Marcia at: August 22, 2011
working with the families that are struggling to feed, clothe and provide safe housing makes the wars we are raging in other countries seem a waste of our dollars. We need to provide for our future generation so that they can be productive members of society.

Submitted by Marcia at: August 22, 2011
working with the families that are struggling to feed, clothe and provide safe housing makes the wars we are raging in other countries seem a waste of our dollars. We need to provide for our future generation so that they can be productive members of society.

Submitted by R.F. at: August 20, 2011
The wisdom of Dr. King and others in his day were right for what our country needs even today. It is shameful for the land of plenty to ignore the plight of the poor especially families with children. There is something else even more devastating happening in the U.S. In Los Angeles County child victims of abuse and neglect have been become disenfranchised by the very system that is supposed to protect them from harm. Since 1998, the County of Los Angeles leases office space from a multi billionaire property owner, Jamison Properties/ Jamison Services, who was found to have placed the public and children in grave danger of exposure to legionella bacteria and legionnaires disease due to a contaminated wooden cooling tower part of a heating, air conditioning and ventilation system that was found in a building where victims of child abuse and neglect are taken on a 24 hour basis. The sad fact is that LA County and its administrators knew about this danger, failed to act to protect the public, by relocating the public else, opting instead to remain in the contaminated building placing children and the public at large at risk. Please refer to Los Angeles Superior Court case number BC246970 and CA Appeals court case number B191020, where the defendants, Jamison were found negligent of causing many to be exposed to legionella and other bacterias. It should be noted that this land owner is paid federal tax dollars for the leasing of their building. Dr. King would be saddened by the fact knowing that governmental entities are not advocating for the protection of children as they appear to assist others to continue to endanger the safety of poor child victims of abuse. When persons have attempted to bring civil litigation about this danger, they have been met by antagonism from the judiciary, the Court system in California and few judges seated on the bench, which was suspected of being biased in favor of the rich real estate conglomerate. It should be that if a business was found to be negligent of causing danger to the public, they should not be allowed to lease office space to the government especially when public funds are being used to pay for the lease.

Submitted by Denver Child Care Director at: August 19, 2011
This message really resonates with me. I work every day with the children and families described in this message, and there are so many who are truly in desperate straits, needing food, shelter and employment.Our center is near the center of the city, and every day we watch our wealthier citizens going about their business-totally unaware of the future leaders struggling to survive in their midst.

Submitted by Leslie at: August 19, 2011
I have written Letters to the Editor about the need to properly budget programs helpful to children such as Head Start, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, the SCHIP and Medicaid programs, and others. I forwarded the editorial in the New York Times as well as statistics from the Kids Count report to Representative Jim Himes and Senators Blumenthal and Lieberman. I hope my local paper would write an article or editorial based on the report.