Did you know that one in four children under five years of age live in poverty, making children the poorest sector of the United States’ population?
On a list of 35 of the most affluent countries in the world, America is ranked 34th for child poverty rates, right below Romania, where citizens make an average of 6 times less money annually than American citizens[i]
Senator Cory Booker, along with several child poverty experts, presented these startling statistics a few weeks ago at the “Inequality begins at Birth: Child Poverty in America” conference, sponsored by The Century Foundation. The speakers emphasized that the time from birth through age three is the most vital period for brain development, and if young children are not properly cared for during their early years, they have a much higher likelihood of being behind when they begin their K-12 education. Caring for America’s youngest citizens is an essential component to breaking the cycle of poverty in the next generation.
Children are poor for no fault of their own, so we do justice to children when we help their parents. Generally the conference speakers agreed that more government intervention is the answer to child poverty, acknowledging that even though it has made many mistakes, the government still has the power, size, and organization to be the greatest force for good in this country. Coming from a background where nearly everyone votes for less government spending and fewer regulations, a red flag immediately went up in my head. However, I was surprised to find that the more I listened, the more I agreed. The government has the ability to spend taxpayer dollars to directly help the most vulnerable citizens and relieve our country of the most extreme poverty, so why doesn’t it?
I think the solution may lie in a public justice framework.
Government may be the overarching structure that holds our society together, but it’s certainly not the only answer to every problem. Imagine our society as a tapestry. It is made up of many parts woven together, and all of the parts play a unique role in making the tapestry beautiful. Society should work the same way. We have many unique institutions that play different roles in making things function properly, and when there’s a problem, we draw on the strengths of different institutions to solve it in the best way possible.
In my opinion, child poverty is one of the worst types of injustice, and, therefore, it should be treated with the most particular and well thought out solutions. We should encourage strong partnerships between our government’s resources and nonprofit organizations that specialize in specific aspects of child poverty. When institutions work together, we can achieve the best results for society.
Below, I’ve provided a few examples that highlight the benefits of these partnerships.
Yolanda Minor, the early childhood coordinator at Save the Children in Mississippi, spoke at the conference about the challenges facing new mothers in poverty. Many children born into poverty live at risk of brain underdevelopment. In fact, she claimed that low-income children hear an average of 30 million fewer words than middle and upper class children by the time they are three years old. This sad statistic is a result of a few things. First, poor parents tend to come from poor parents who came from poor parents. It’s a generational cycle of parents who are unaware of the key factors that contribute to proper brain development in their children. Yolanda explained that many parents don’t understand the concept of talking to or reading to a young child who “can’t comprehend the book.” In short, poor parents do not read and talk to their babies, and it’s setting them back in their education from the get go.
Another factor that hinders educational development in young children is the lack of age appropriate books and toys in poor families. Susan Buffet from the Huffington Post asserted that, “Sound science and everyday experience show that children are born learning.” For this reason, it’s important that children age 0-3 have access to mind-stimulating books and toys as their brains are making crucial connections in those years.
Save the Children believes in the effectiveness of home visits to teach parents the proper techniques of successful child raising. Employees go into the homes of low income, new mothers toguide them and their families as they learn the best ways to take care of their babies. Save the Children is just one example of an institution that is changing lives in a community, one family at a time. Our government is too big to reach into the personal lives of people around the country and help them in an intimate way. It’s just not possible. However, the government can do its part to foster a political environment that invites these types of organizations to flourish.
I agree with Robert Greenstein, president of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, who said that supporting programs that fight against child poverty should be “bipartisan no-brainers.” But what wasn’t mentioned at this conference were all of the nonprofit organizations that already make a huge impact in these areas all over the country.
The Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center provides many services, including counseling, parenting classes, maternity and baby clothing, post abortion peer support, Bible studies, and much more. All of these services are provided free of charge by the generous donations of individuals, churches, organizations, and foundations. As amazing as this organization is, it makes me wonder how many more children and mothers it could help if the government were to partner with them. To me, this seems to be the “bipartisan no-brainer.” If we are all working for the common good of children, it doesn’t make sense for the government not to support the organizations that so personally take care of communities. We need to take what Senator Booker said seriously: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
As people who follow Christ, it’s our calling to engage in public issues, especially issues that involve those who cannot help themselves. We need to vote for representation that values the common good above party loyalties, andwe need to value the common good above our party loyalties. Government is a great means to promote the common good, and it should not be discounted. However, our children deserve the best, and the only way to fight against the opportunity gap between poor children and middle class children is to take advantage of all the strong institutions our society has to offer.
-Emily Davisson is currently the assistant editor of Shared Justice. She will be graduating from Olivet Nazarene University in 2015 with a degree in political science and nonprofit management.
[i] Renee Wilson-Simmons, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty