Child Poverty

The Test of Our Progress

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

These words are from President Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural address given January 20, 1937. The President was speaking to a nation crawling out of the Great Depression. Progress had been made but President Roosevelt knew a great nation was still capable of so much more. Below is what preceded that passage:

“[H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. …

It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope — because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous.”

We are facing another test of our moral progress today – and we are failing. U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2017 released this week show nearly 1 in 5 children in America still lives in poverty making them the poorest age group in our country. Almost one-third of the 39.7 million poor people in the United States are children. While the data show a slight reduction in child poverty in 2017 compared to 2016, the number of poor children – 12.8 million, 17.5 percent of all children – remains indecently high. And though unemployment numbers continue to fall, these gains have not kept families and children out of poverty. More than 70 percent of poor children come from working families who often face low and stagnant wages.

The fact that nearly 1 in 5 children in America lives in poverty is morally and practically unacceptable and economically costly. That our youngest children are the poorest group of children during their years of greatest brain development is a shameful indictment of our values and our common sense given our very wealthy nation’s failure to invest in our vulnerable young. More than 1 in 5 children under six are poor in 20 states and the District of Columbia. More than two-thirds of poor children are children of color who will soon be a majority of our child population responsible for supporting our increasingly aging population into the future. Only four states have Black child poverty rates under 20 percent.

How shockingly wrong-headed, immoral and costly it is that as they learn 12.8 million children are struggling to grow up in poverty, the Trump Administration and Republican controlled Congress propose to throw money at non-needy millionaires and billionaires over babies. In 2017 the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act gave massive tax cuts to billionaires, millionaires and powerful corporations at the expense of the majority of taxpayers and children at a cost of $1.9 trillion over the next 11 years. To fill this huge deficit hole, the Trump Administration and Republican leaders in Congress have threatened cuts to critical investments in child health, nutrition, housing and education.

This very week, House Republicans introduced their Tax Plan 2.0 that would again reward the wealthy and continue to increase already indefensible inequality. If enacted it would permanently extend the 2017 tax law’s individual provisions slated to expire after 2025 that benefit the top one percent of households twice as much as those in the bottom 60 percent. Initial estimates indicate Tax Plan 2.0 would add around $3 trillion more to the originally projected $1.9 trillion deficit in the first 10 years after the individual provisions become permanent. And with significantly higher projected deficits the threat remains that the Trump White House will continue to propose debilitating cuts to starve survival programs poor children and their families desperately need to buy groceries, see the doctor and find a safe affordable place to live in order to pay for huge tax breaks for wealthy corporations and individuals. Has our nation completely lost all sense of decency and justice?

Babies’ survival needs should trump billionaires’ and millionaires’ greed. Our children’s present and future lives are too valuable to let these profoundly unjust practices continue. This new Tax Plan 2.0 and any additional cuts to key survival programs must be rejected. And every single person in America needs to speak out and mount a campaign to end child poverty now.

How will we test our progress today? Will our President continue to ignore the 12.8 million poor children and their families? How many Congressional leaders will stand up for those who have too little – or will they join the frenzied Republican leadership attempts to give more permanent tax breaks to those who have too much?

The recent Census Bureau report shows how key investments can help end child and family poverty. We must provide jobs and decent wages and support investments in child and family basic needs. Supplemental Poverty Measure data which expand on the Official Poverty Measure by including the impact of some government and other programs on family resources show that in 2017 millions of children were lifted above the poverty line by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other refundable credits (4.5 million), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (1.5 million), the National School Lunch Program (722,000), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) (156,000), housing subsidies (897,000), the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Program (472,000), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and general assistance (296,000).

We can and must provide enough for our young who have too little instead of padding the pockets of millionaires and billionaires who have far more than their fair share of public welfare. No child in our nation should live in poverty. Shielding children from the lifelong consequences of poverty will improve child lives now and reduce future child poverty. We have all the resources and know how to end child poverty and cannot wait. Our children’s and nation’s future depend on acting right now.

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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