Monday, July 8, 2013

Increasing Child Poverty and the Political Culture in America Today

            For the past ten years I’ve spent July 4th at Goose Rocks Beach in Maine whose population of a few hundred swells to a several thousand in summer. It is mostly working families with kids, scratching out a few days of summer vacation. Neighbors line the town’s main street to cheer 900 runners in the 5K road race. Then the fire department’s 3 trucks lead a children’s parade of bikes decked out in red, white and blue, to a cookout at the old Community House.  If Norman Rockwell had used Instagram it would be his snapshot of what childhood should be: sunshine and safe streets, kites and cotton candy, barbecues and best friends. 

Unfortunately that snapshot becomes less representative of childhood in America with each passing day. Just before July 4, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released their annual Kids Count report which paints a different picture of America’s children, but one central to our work at Share Our Strength. The important facts:

-          The U.S. child poverty rate is 23% with 16.4 million children below the poverty line, up from 22% in 2010 and from 19% in 2005.  The poverty rate for children under 3 is even higher: 26%.  The number of children in poverty increased even as the unemployment rate gradually declined.

-          Only 46% of 3-4 year olds attend pre-school which plays such a critical role in helping low income kids begin on a more even playing field. A stunning 68% of fourth graders in public schools were reading below proficient levels in 2011.

-          From 2007 through 2011 12 percent of children lived in high poverty areas nationwide, a total of 8.6 million, up 2.3 million children since 2000 when the rate was 9 percent. High poverty areas are census tracts where poverty rates of the total population are 30 percent or more, putting whole neighborhoods at risk with higher rates of crime, violence, unemployment and health issues.

            Statistics are only part of the story, for the rest read this heartbreaking story in Sunday’s Washington Post about childhood hunger in the summertime when schools are closed @

 If you’d told me in 2008 that the fifth year of an Obama administration would witness child poverty increasing, I’d have been shocked. If you’d said it would happen with barely a word in response from the President, or other influential leaders, I wouldn’t have believed it. 

Here’s what’s most alarming: the silence and inaction is less a reflection of the strengths and weaknesses of President Obama, or any one leader, and more an indictment of the now pervasive political culture both major parties have conspired to create.  Like a virulent virus, our political culture has evolved to value the power to survive, above any purpose for which such power might be put.  Governing has become resistant to those rare strains of bipartisanship that were known, at least on occasion, to prevail in the past. The result is polarization and paralysis, frustrating our ability to solve any problems, simple or complex. 

 Today’s political culture demands each party automatically oppose any proposal of the other party. It regards advocating for those outside the politically sacred middle class to be a sign of naiveté and weakness. It shuns even a whisper of sacrifice for others, with no appetite for giving voice to the marginalized or voiceless.  In other words, it is a culture the opposite of the revolutionaries whose spirit we honor on the Fourth of July. 

But one need not go back 250 years to make the point. A passage from Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address in 1937, carved in granite at the FDR Memorial, asserts:  “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.”  In 2013 such words would be labeled a gaffe, the kind of self-inflicted political wound that pollsters and political consultants strive to avoid. 

That’s why the stakes for No Kid Hungry are enormously high. First and foremost is the opportunity to save and change kid’s lives.

We could also help affirm the philosophy we share with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.  In CEO Patrick McCarthy’s foreword to the Kids Count report I heard echoes of our strategy for No Kid Hungry and Cooking Matters: “The gulf continues to widen between children growing up in strong, economically secure families who are embedded in thriving communities and children who are not.  Early childhood strategies alone will not successfully reduce disparities among children; we must also assist their parents. Given the consensus on the need to reduce the country’s long-term debt, simply adding more public dollars to existing strategies is neither wise nor feasible. Although we will need to invest more in early childhood, we should focus our resources on strategies with evidence of high returns in child well-being and healthy development. For example, we should weave together existing programs that support new parents …”

And maybe, just maybe, we can reignite the idea that our political system can accomplish good things, that the ideals behind America’s founding are more than just ideals, and that all our children can have the childhood they deserve, not just at Goose Rocks Beach on the Fourth of July but all across America every day of the year.

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