The State of the Child
Yesterday was the 35th anniversary of the National Observance of Children’s Sabbath. Thousands of multi-faith churches all across the US advocated for children during their worship services. While Christ Church Cathedral did not use the suggested Prayers of the People, I did hold an Adult Forum on the subject.
When I worked on this last week in preparation for Sunday, I noted no political undertones necessarily. Yet, as I went through the statistics and my own conclusions, I could hear the voice of Barack Obama. We had the good fortune of going to see him at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis on Saturday.
The idea that I might be promoting one political agenda over another in the midst of a church setting sort of concerned me at first. Quickly, I realized that the message I was sending, the same one endorsed by Obama, was not a political message per se…it was/is the Gospel message. It was rather comforting to think that Barack Obama is pushing the Gospel message to help those who are not able to help themselves to the people of the United States.
Below is the information I used to begin the Forum.
Prior to any discussion about poverty, there are several terms that need defining:
Welfare is the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity, etc., of a person, group, or organization; well-being: to look after a child's welfare; the physical or moral welfare of society. (according to http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/welfare)
Extreme Poverty is the state of not being able to meet basic needs – food, water, shelter, sanitation, and healthcare. The World Bank states that it is defined by those living on less than $1.25 per day. Tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS are considered crucial factors and consequences of extreme poverty. Currently, 1.4 billion people live in extreme poverty worldwide. Extreme poverty most often results in death.
Severe poverty in the US is classified (as of 2005) as thus: individuals earning less than $5,080 a year (< $100 per week, $14 per day) were considered severely poor; a family of four with two children was severely poor if they lived on less than $9,903 (< $200 per week, $28 per day). In the year 2005, nearly 16 million Americans were living in severe poverty.
We know the Millennium Development Goal statistic that states 30,000 children die every single day of the year from extreme poverty. We have a tendency to think, yes, but not in the US. And that is true. Far fewer in the US die from extreme poverty. But what about the life altering effects of just plain old everyday poverty?
Here are a few statistics.(all statistics come from the Children’s Defense Fund) Did you know that a Black boy born in 2001 has a 1-3 chance of going to prison sometime in his lifetime? Or that a Latino boy has a 1-6 chance? A White boy has a 1-17 chance. Or the stats for girls – Black girls, 1-17, Latinas, 1-45 while White girls have a 1-111 chance.
Personally, I think it reprehensible that we live in a society that uses prison as a means of behavior modification. Even a 1 in 111 chance of being in prison is far too high. Did you know that a majority of the minority children in the US attend racially segregated and unequal schools? That 86% of Black children; 83% of Latino/a children and 58 % of White fourth graders cannot read at their grade level? Or that 89% of Black eighth graders; 85% of Latino/a eighth graders and 59% of White eighth graders cannot do math at their grade levels? 579,000 Black males are serving sentences in state and federal prisons while only 48,000 Black males earn a bachelor’s degree each year. Black youths are almost 5 times as likely and Latino youths are about twice as likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses as are White youths.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant theologian who died when he returned to Nazi Germany to oppose all that Hitler was doing, “believed that the test of the morality of a society is how it treats its children.”
In the US:
Every 36 seconds, a child is abused or neglected.
Every 35 seconds, a US citizen is born into poverty.
Every 41 seconds an American baby is born without benefit of health insurance.
EVERY THREE HOURS an American child is killed by a firearm. As Sarah Palin so recently urged us”, Do the math.”
Tell me. Are we passing Bonhoeffer’s test of morality?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Since Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were murdered in 1968, 1.1 million Americans, including more than 100, 000 children and teens were killed by guns.
The Children’s Defense Fund asks this question:
What is it going to take for you and me to stand up and build a movement to stop the senseless deaths of children and adults from gunfire and poverty, neglect and abuse and the denial of health care and the indifference and inaction in a society deadened by “affluenza” and the unjust structures and budget priorities that support and enable it?
How is it possible that we not only allow but support the idea that nearly 1.7 million families lived on less income than was received last year by one private equity firm executive? The gap between rich and poor is at its highest level ever…the average CEO of a large company makes more in a day than the average worker makes in a whole year…the number of children in poverty has increased by 1.2 million since 2000…the number of children without health coverage leapt by more than one million from 2004 to 2006.
The current political contention is that we cannot afford to provide healthcare for all children and pregnant women (this would cost about $70 billion) but that we can afford to continue to give tax cuts to the top one percent of the richest Americans (this cost us $76 billion in lost revenues this year alone).
These statistics are indicative of a profoundly demoralized society. These instances of poverty are not caused by disasters such as famine or war…at least not a war on our own soil. This poverty, neglect, and abuse are caused by decisions and choices that we as US citizens have made…or have not made. The good thing is that these are all changeable. We really don’t have any choice but to change these errors in judgment.
So, how do we do it?
First, we must educate ourselves. There are many occasions for enlightenment: The Children’s Defense Fund, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, the ONE campaign, ONE Episcopalian, The Episcopal Church’s Peace and Justice ministries…there is not one excuse for ignorance in this day and age.
Then we must speak out…speak Truth to the power, just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did…just as Dr. King did. Just as they did not ask what speaking out might cost them, neither can we worry about that. We are charged by Holy Scriptures to care for those who cannot care for themselves. We are not asked to judge…we are just told to DO. We have no choice…not as Christians. We must speak out on behalf of the poor, the young, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger who cannot speak for themselves. It is the only thing that we can do.
There is a difference between charity and justice. Charity is the recognition that need exists and caring about it – it’s the giving of a gift; justice is the acting upon that recognition of a need and attempting to right that which caused the wrong in the first place. Charity is empathy in action and is often the difference between life and death. Justice is more long term and requires work rather than heart-jerk reaction.
The Children’s Defense Fund suggests several things that we must do:
To End Child Poverty, we must invest in high quality education for every child, livable wages for families, income supplements such as Earned Income and Child Tax Credits, job training and job creation and work supports like child care and health coverage.
We must ensure that every child and Pregnant woman has access to affordable, comprehensive health and mental health coverage and services. Well care ensures that we have healthy citizens which will result in less cost to the health care industry, fewer missed work or school days and a better capability to work and to learn. Healthier people – healthier economy.
We must work to make certain that high quality early childhood development programs are available to every child, not just the ones who can afford it.
We must advocate for each child – that he or she may reach his or her full potential and succeed in work and life – we need to ensure our schools have adequate resources to provide high quality education to every child, regardless of that child’s need.
We must protect children from abuse, neglect and connect them to caring permanent families. We do this by improving the child welfare workforce and increase accountability for results for children. The thing is, idyllic as it may seem, if we work towards correcting the issues that create poverty, there may actually be less abuse and neglect from which we must save those children.
We have to stop the criminalization of children at increasingly younger ages. Detention and incarceration of children have to be reduced – this can be done by increasing investment in prevention and early intervention programs.
In a short sentence, we have to invest in our future by investing in our children – in their health and their welfare. All of this is sort of like the Ten Commandments being condensed into the two – Love God and Love Neighbor. If we follow both of these with our whole heart, mind and spirit, then all the rest of the commandments fall into a natural order of obedience. The same is true for all these things that we can do to end poverty: if first we devote ourselves to the welfare of our nation’s children, all the other problems will be rectified thereafter.
Welfare is not a four letter word. It is a call for justice. It is the call of the Holy Scriptures. It is what we all must strive towards – not just for the few whose parents can afford it but for “the good fortune, health, happiness, prosperity” of all children.
All who have children know that when the children are happy and well, there is peace in the house. Let us work for Peace in the house.