Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My Keynote in Denver to Hunger Free Colorado Summit on day of first presidential debate

Denver, October 3, 2012
Hunger Free Colorado Summit

Thank you Kathy Underhill for that introduction and congrats on the continued progress of Hunger Free Colorado. Your leadership is the reason so many of us are here today. Not just your leadership but the great results you are getting in leading the No Kid Hungry campaign and the effort to end childhood hunger. I know that you are just back from maternity leave and I am grateful that in addition to everything else you have contributed you have chosen to contribute another activist in the next generation of anti-hunger advocates. Also we have numerous distinguished guests but I want to especially thank Kevin Concannon from the USDA who is one of America’s most dedicated public servants and champions for kids.

We have this conversation this morning at an extraordinary time. The presidential election is a month away and as usual, politics triumphs over issues. The first debate is only hours away. Congress has adjourned without passing any of the appropriations bills that are its first and primary responsibility. The world is an increasingly dangerous and complicated place. Syria, Sudan, Libya, and gasoline prices, structural unemployment, challenges with the Euro.

And here at home, 46 million of our fellow citizens remain mired in poverty including more than 22 % of all of our children. There are 16.4 million poor children in rich America, 7.4 million living in extreme poverty. Children under five are the poorest age group in America and one in four infants, toddlers and preschoolers are poor during the years of greatest brain development.” The report’s sobering statistics include: more than 1 in 4 children in the U.S. are on SNAP; 39.1 percent of black children were born poor in 2010. Only 3% of eligible infants and toddlers secure spots in Head Start due to funding constraints.

Though frustrating, we can understand when political leaders struggle with problems so complex and in some cases beyond their control that they seem unsolvable. Syria. Sudan. Libya. Gas prices. Structural unemployment.

But what about failing to solve those problems that are solvable? What about failing to solve those problems where we know the answer, there is bipartisan support for it, and the resources needed have been set aside? Failing to solve those kinds of problems, with no excuse other than politics, transcends incompetence. It breaks faith with a generation of children that are the most vulnerable and the least responsible for the situation in which they will find themselves.

There is no better example than the tragedy of childhood hunger in America today. What I want to talk about today is why it is a solvable problem.

46 million Americans are on food stamps for the first time in history and almost half of them are children. 22.5 percent of our kids in this country live in poverty. More than one in five.

Not everyone is as passionate as those of us in this room about the issue of childhood hunger, or at least they may not think they are at first. But then again, if you are passionate about education, about health care, about nutrition and obesity, about American economic competitiveness and American economic security, you may find that childhood hunger is more important to you than you realized. Because such hunger – unprecedented and unnecessary in America in 2012 – is compromising our national goals in each of these areas. Teachers tell us so. So do physicians. So do business leaders, economists and even our generals and admirals.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have shown sufficient inclination to take this issue head-on. Even more remarkably, there has been very little pressure on them to do so. Why? Because the historic economic inequality that characterizes and divides America in 2012 has been both consequence and cause of increased political inequality. The voiceless are even more so.

But the most recent Census Bureau data showing poverty that is entrenched year after year leads to at least one inescapable conclusion: Ignoring poverty will not make it go away. With few exceptions, political leaders have refused to even talk about poverty, let alone offer any big or bold anti-poverty initiatives. And for nearly a decade poverty has continued to grow worse. Imagine the 1968 campaign without a mention of Vietnam or civil rights. Or the 1976 post-Watergate election without a discussion of campaign finance reform. Or 1980’s race’s between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan not focusing on the energy crisis of the Iran hostage situation. It’s hard to think of a presidential election in which the great crises of that particular time was met with silence and played no part of the campaign.

But critical anti-hunger programs like SNAP and school meals work. As poverty has worsened, food insecurity has not, demonstrating the effectiveness of the safety net.

So our response must be twofold. One is to insist on better political leadership and better public policy. The other is to assume the responsibilities incumbent of citizens living in a republic. There is much we can and must do. Not “we” as in the collective “we”. We as in you and me in this room.

Because while solving poverty is complex, feeding a child is not. Our American children are not hungry because we lack food or because we lack food and nutrition programs. They are hungry because they lack access to such programs even though such programs work and the funds have been set aside to support them. Is it possible to think of a more lame excuse?

What do I mean by “lack access”. I mean that of 21 million kids who get a free school lunch by virtue of their family’s low income, only 9 million get breakfast although all 21 million are eligible, and only 3 million get meals in the summer time when the schools are closed. Here in Colorado the ratios are similar. During the 2010-2011 school year, of the 356,000 kids who got school lunch in this state, just over 100,000 ate breakfast.

The consequences are predictable and devastating. At Old Mill Middle School in Maryland, Principal Sean McElhaney told us of the morning he conducted standardized tests and a student wrote “I don’t care” across his. He prepared to give that student the usual lecture until the student said “Principal Mac, I haven’t eaten, I’m hungry and that’s why I wrote that.”

As devastating are the consequences, there are solutions. In Los Angeles County Mayor Villaraigosa recently announced that their experiment with breakfast in the classroom in one school will extend to 700 L.A. county public schools over the next three years. In the last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote a letter urging all school officials to explore the benefits of such alternatives to breakfast in the cafeteria.

But why is there this disconnect in the first place given the enormous need and the resources that exist to solve the problem? The disconnect is because children are not only vulnerable, but voiceless. Kids don’t vote, make PAC contributions, belong to organizations or have lobbyists. All they have is you, and me.

And that’s why we need to do this work more powerfully. Powerfully enough to be able to reverse this effects of our negligence on a generation of children.

Imagine a time and a place in which everything you know to be true – because your instinct tells you so and because you’ve learned it - is set aside in favor of its opposite. Instead of putting oil in your car, you use water until the engine grinds to a halt. Instead of farmers watering their crops they let the harsh sun destroy them. Instead of building with the best steel and stone you instead use sand and water and knowingly face inevitable collapse. Instead of saving money to invest in long-term value creation and a better future, you opt instead for the immediate gratification that comes from spending everything you have?

This is how a generation of children are being raised today, in complete contrast to what we know is essential for their well being and success, in contradiction to not only maternal and paternal instinct but science and research as cutting edge as anything to be found at the intersection of neuroscience, molecular biology, technology and child development. The result is not only harmful to those specific kids, but to every single American taxpayer who bears the burden of far greater remedial expense, to our economy, our criminal justice system, and ultimately to our national security.

There is a very brief window for ensuring that kids get the nutrition and stimulation they need for their brains to grow properly. For decades we’ve given lip service to the belief that investing in early intervention now is more cost effective than paying for the consequences of not doing so later. But our ears don’t hear the words our lips have spoken. The length of time required to solve social problems does not align with a political cycle that requires re-election every 2,4 or 6 years.

It’s always difficult, whether in business or public affairs, to marshal the will to make investments that don’t pay off until the long term. But when applied to our children it not only means lost opportunity but devastating and often irreversible damage. As Share Our Strength’s national spokesperson Jeff Bridges often says about the fact that 16 million American children struggle with hunger “If another country had done this to our kids we’d go to war against them.”

I hope that as citizen leaders you will succeed where our political leaders have failed. On the airplane that brought me here I looked down at the farms and factories, at the small towns and schools where children were taught that Presidents and Congress, Governors and Mayors act on their behalf no matter which class they belong to. From that vantage point America looks fertile and full of possibility. But our leaders no longer see the whole, as one can from this vantage point. They have instead narrowed their vision to see only what is small and advantageous in the short-term. As a result they perpetuate the smallness, the narrowness, and the division. By such actions they are choosing to follow rather than to lead. The only remedy is for others to lead, for citizens and community organizations and businesses to act not on behalf of a class, but on behalf of a country. As graduates today you not only have that opportunity, but that responsibility. And you can do so by sharing your strength, creating community wealth, and bearing witness.

More than 50 million Americans living in poverty desperately need our help. But just as much as they need us, we need them if America is to maintain a position of strength and competitiveness in the world. A country with one sixth of its population trapped in poverty, on food assistance, unemployed and dispirited will be hard pressed to lead and inspire in ways that live up to America’s legacy. American can’t be strong if her kids are weak.

No one spoke more eloquently about the need to share our strengths than the poet Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote:

We are others harvest

We are each other’s business

We are each other’s magnitude

And bond.

Those words are just as true today. We are each others’ harvest. Thank you for the work you are doing to end childhood hunger and to make America a nation in which there is No Kid Hungry.