“A country that does not stand for and protect its children – our seed corn for the future – does not stand for anything.” Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund
Last week the Census Bureau delivered disturbing news about how the Great Recession and its aftermath are affecting the most vulnerable among us – America’s school children. Out of a total of 3,142 counties in the United States, 653 saw significant increases in poverty among school-aged children from 2007-2010 – an increase of 20 percent. Nationally, 19.8 percent of school children are now living in poverty.
This poverty increase has hit large, urban school systems the hardest with 96 of the 100 biggest school districts reporting increases in the number of poor children. In Detroit, 47 percent of school children are poor. In New York, the poverty rate rose to 29 percent, up from 26.6 percent in 2007. This is a moral outrage. While the debate drags on in Washington about the right balance of spending cuts and taxes, a real and preventable tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. Through no fault of their own, millions more children whose parents have lost jobs, are in need of free school lunches, are going without health care and, as depicted in a recent “60 Minutes” segment, are homeless and even living in cars.
The new Census Bureau report comes on the heels of news in September that the number of poor people in America has risen to 46.2 million – that’s 15 percent of all citizens and the largest number in 52 years. Many previously middle class families are finding themselves standing in line at food banks and homeless shelters. And, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, one in three African American and Hispanic children are living in poverty. This should be a loud and urgent wake-up call to Congress and policy makers.
By the end of this year, only weeks away, if Congress fails to act, already struggling families face the end of the payroll tax cut. This would add about $1000 to a family’s tax bill. The extension of unemployment benefits is also in jeopardy. According to the non-partisan Center for Budget Policy and Priorities, unemployment benefits together with supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are keeping 7 million people out of poverty.
Beth Davalos, who runs Families in Transition in Seminole County, Florida, was interviewed for the “60 Minutes” segment on children living in cars. She explained in stark terms the impact poverty is having on a kindergarten child she was trying to help: “That little 5-year-old was so troubled over where she would be sleeping, she was not thinking about 2 + 2.” The fact is, we should not even be talking about child poverty in the richest nation on earth. We have the means, we simply need to summon the will to end it. If we can find the money to bail out Wall Street and give tax breaks to the wealthy, surely we can find the resources to provide food, shelter, health care and a good education for our children.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.