The Census Bureau recently delivered some disturbing news about how the Great Recession and its aftermath are affecting the most vulnerable among us — America’s school children.
More than 20 percent of the nation’s counties saw significant increases in poverty among school-aged children between 2007 and 2010. Nationally, 22 percent of our children are living in poverty.
This poverty increase has hit large, urban school systems the hardest, with 96 of the 100 biggest school districts reporting increases in the number of poor children. In Detroit, for example, 47 percent of school children are poor. In New York City, the rate stands at 29 percent.
This is a moral outrage. While the debate drags on in Washington about the right balance of spending cuts and taxes, a real and preventable tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. Through no fault of their own, millions of children whose parents have lost jobs need free school lunches, and in many cases are going without health care. As depicted in a recent “60 Minutes” segment, some are homeless and living in cars.
The new Census data comes on the heels of news in September that the number of impoverished Americans has risen to 46.2 million. That’s 15 percent of us, the largest number in 52 years.
Many previously middle-class families are finding themselves standing in line at food banks and homeless shelters. And, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, one in three African-American and Latino children are living in poverty. This should be a loud and urgent wake-up call to Congress and policymakers.
If Congress fails to act, already struggling families face the end of the payroll tax cut in the New Year. This would add about $1,000 to an average family’s tax bill. Lawmakers may also fail to extend unemployment benefits. According to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, unemployment benefits, together with supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, are keeping 7 million people out of poverty.
Beth Davalos, who runs Families in Transition in Seminole County, Florida, was interviewed for the “60 Minutes” segment on homeless children living in cars. She explained in stark terms the impact poverty is having on a kindergarten child she was trying to help: “That little 5-year-old was so troubled over where she would be sleeping, she was not thinking about 2 + 2.”
The fact is, we shouldn’t even be talking about child poverty in the richest nation on earth. We have the means. We simply need to summon the will to end it.
If we can find the money to bail out Wall Street and give tax breaks to the wealthy, surely we can find the resources to provide food, shelter, health care, and a good education for our children.
As Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, has said, “A country that does not stand for and protect its children — our seed corn for the future — does not stand for anything.”