Spotlight Exclusives

A Call to End Child Poverty, by Karen Lashman, Vice-President of Policy for the Children۪s Defense Fund

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In a now renowned speech, Martin Luther King Jr. drew attention to the pervasive poverty existing throughout America and poignantly shared his dream of its end. His vision of a more just society in which each and every child is assured equity of opportunities to fulfill her or his potential has yet to be fully realized more than 40 years later. We must step forward now to ensure a level playing field for every child. For every minute we waste, we lose another child.

Of the 37.3 million persons in our nation presently living in poverty, 13.3 million of them are children. This is every sixth child. A baby is born into poverty every 33 seconds in America. Our child poverty rate is higher than any other industrialized nation.

Strikingly, 5.8 million of these poor children live in families in extreme poverty with incomes below half the federal poverty level. And recent trends are especially troubling. Newly released Census data reveal an actual increase between 2006 and 2007 of 500,000 in the total number of poor children. At the same time, the number of children living in extreme poverty increased by 260,000. In fact, child poverty has increased during the current Administration; 1.7 million more children now are living in poverty than in 2000, and the number of children living in extreme poverty has risen by more than 1.1 million over this same period.

The burden of child poverty falls disproportionately on those of color. Black children are more than three times as likely to be poor as white children, and Latino children are nearly three times as likely to be poor as white children.

The currently faltering economy, turmoil in the financial markets, and a burgeoning national deficit threaten to relegate child poverty to the backburner of a new Administration. We must all work to ensure that does not happen.

The next Administration absolutely must take the requisite steps to end child poverty now. We already know the priority steps to be taken. Failure to respond decisively and rapidly will continue to exact a high toll not only on children and their families but our society as a whole.

Poverty casts long shadows throughout children۪s lives. Poor children are at high risk of not having timely access to the full range of quality services essential to their development. Not only do poor children have more severe health problems, but they fare worse than higher-income children even with the same health condition. For example, one study found that a low-income child with asthma is more likely to be reported in poor health, spend more days in bed, and to have more hospital episodes than a high-income asthmatic child. Poor young children lag behind their peers in both cognitive and behavioral development even before starting school, and these gaps tend to persist later in life. Low-income eighth-grade students are much less likely to be proficient in reading and math than higher-income students, and low-income youth and young adults ages 16 to 24 drop out of high school at more than four times the rate of their high-income peers.

Poverty is harmful not only because of its dire effects during childhood and into adulthood. It adversely affects, and generates significant costs for all of us. One study estimated that child poverty costs our nation about half a trillion dollars each year from lost productivity, higher crime, and worse health.

Urgent steps must be taken by the next Administration and Congress to lift children out of poverty. These steps include expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for families with three or more children, and making the Child Tax Credit fully refundable.

The majority of poor children are in families already working hard and playing by the rules. Seven out of 10 poor children are in working families where someone works full- or part-time for at least part of the year. All working parents should be able to earn enough to meet their children۪s basic needs. To achieve this, we must increase the minimum wage to a livable level, and adjust it regularly for inflation. We also need to make child care assistance available to low-income, working parents.

We must invest in young children, especially those from the poorest families, to reduce the currently wide disparities in educational achievement and attainment that are rooted in unequal opportunities before children even arrive at school. Children must have access to high-quality early childhood development programs, the returns on which have been well documented and widely recognized. Evidence from the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study showed that participants were more likely to have graduated from high school, had higher earnings, and committed fewer crimes.

Our nation must ensure that even those children who grow up in low-income families are assured their core needs are met through access to a comprehensive safety net and that all pregnant women and children have access to health coverage and health care.

Additionally, all children should be guaranteed a quality education, regardless of their neighborhood or family income. We must make certain that every child can read at grade level by fourth grade and graduate from high school, as a high school diploma is one of the most effective strategies to combat poverty in adulthood.

Notably, poverty undergirds the crisis that the Children۪s Defense Fund is seeking to address through its Cradle to Prison Pipeline® campaign. We must reform our child-serving systems, including juvenile justice and child welfare, that are funneling thousands of children, particularly those of color, down life paths that often lead to arrest, conviction, incarceration and for some, even premature death.

Ending child poverty in our nation is no easy task. It is not simply a matter of funding but one of reorienting our values and priorities. Certainly as the world۪s richest nation, we can and must allocate the resources. But it will require enormous political will, with strong presidential leadership and bipartisan Congressional support. Simply put, the United States cannot afford not to end child poverty now. Each step that improves the lives of children impacts not just tomorrow but today for them and for our nation. Our children deserve no less.

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