“It is a disgrace that in the world’s second-largest economy, we let our children be the poorest group of citizens. And the younger they are, the poorer they are,” Marian Wright Edelman said on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 14.
Edelman, the president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, distilled one of the major themes at this conference throughout a panel discussion on the links between childhood development, education, and poverty. America is failing its youngest generation, she argued.
“The greatest national, economic, and military security problem we face does not come from any enemy without, it comes from our failure to prepare millions and millions of children for the future… This is going to be our undoing.”
Edelman’s pessimism is backed up by dismal statistics: A whopping 22% of all children in the country live below the poverty line; among all the children enrolled in public schools, 51% do. Six percent, or 4.5 million kids, do not have health insurance.
The majority (66%) of 4th-graders in the US cannot read at their established grade level; that proportion is 80% for non-white 4th-graders.
“Our problems go deeper. And I think we need to put them out on the table,” Edelman continued:
I call them our [country’s] founding birth defects, which keep flaring up every 50 years or so. And until we can confront our history of slavery, of Native-American genocide, of exclusion of all women from the electoral process—and maybe we’re going to make a big step forward on that one this year—they keep flaring up, and they underline and undermine our ability to do what we know works, and we know a lot about what works.
We know how to end poverty. But it’s about race. The fact that the black child is the poorest child in America, after a massive civil-rights movement, says everything. And non-white children, who are our future, we can invest in them or not invest in them at our own peril.
We know what to do. It’s about political will, it’s about moral will, it’s about confronting the racism, classism, and inequality that underlines all this.
Edelman then cited research from the Urban Institute that concluded “we could lift 60% of children out of poverty, and 72% of black children out of poverty” by spending $77 billion. “And everybody says that’s a lot of money. But you know what, it costs us $500 billion dollars every year that we keep children in poverty.”
“We’ve got states that would rather spend two to three times more to lock children up in prison than give them pre-school. Something’s wrong with that picture,” said Edelman, referencing the school-to-prison pipeline, in which school administrators are quick to suspend or expel students—especially students of color—who then end up entangled in the criminal justice system.