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Just Cause for Great Alarm

In a interview, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund explains why tackling poverty, education and health care during this financial crisis makes economic sense.

Today in America, 1 in 6 children lives in poverty, and nearly 9 million lack proper medical insurance. Of all the world's industrialized nations, the United States has the largest gap between its rich and poor, lowest birth weight average and highest number of incarcerations.

Marian Wright Edelman doesn't think the United States has a money problem right now, but a values problem. As the stock market rose over the past decades, she watched the number of American children living in poverty grow, too. Now, despite the recession, she's fighting to make sure these children and their families are not forgotten, and she says that the best way to strengthen the U.S. economy in the long term is less about creating credit and bailing out banks and more about a making serious investment in our children.

Edelman is the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, a privately funded research and advocacy group that documents the growing problems facing poor and minority children, including poverty, inadequate health care and declining educational systems. For 35 years, CDF has created programs and supported legislation that expand education, nutrition and health care opportunities offered to the nation's children, including the 13.3 million living in poverty.


Edelman graduated from Spellman College and has a law degree from Yale University. She was the first African-American woman to be admitted to the Mississippi Bar and was heavily involved with the civil rights movement — including working as counsel for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign shortly before his death. recently spoke with Edelman about her new book, The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small, poverty issues facing America's children in the declining economy and the state of race relations in our country, led by its first African-American president. Your new book is a series of letters sent to various constituencies addressing the hardships facing America's children today. If you could only send one of the letters to its respective recipient, which would you chose?

Marian Wright Edelman: I would choose the Letter to Our Leaders: America's Sixth Child and Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline Crisis because that's a siren alarm to all of us about the job that has to be done to finish what Dr. King started - talking about the importance of economic justice and beginning a movement to close the gap between the rich and the poor. ... That is what I think the domestic agenda of the country has to address: The fact that we have 13.3 million children who are poor today compared to 11 million when Dr. King died. The 5.8 million children living in extreme poverty - and those are numbers that are pre-new numbers from the economic downturn — are just cause for great alarm.

And the face of poverty has become working people. All across the country and in this economic downturn, we have to begin to reweave a fundamental safety net to create jobs, jobs, jobs with decent wages, but we've also got to prevent the cycle of poverty and that means investing in our children. (That's the agenda) laid out in the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline — which I believe is becoming the new American apartheid. So if people could only read one chapter, that's what I would tell them to read.

M-M: Can you elaborate on the economic downturn and its possible effects on poverty issues? During this financial crisis, do you see the issue of child poverty getting lost or do you think it will gain in prominence?

MWE: Well, we're trying to make sure that they don't get lost. But, you know, the whole system up to now has been a house of cards on the verge of total collapse, not only in our own nation but globally. I don't know that enough attention has been given to people who are losing their homes and losing their jobs and setting up a safety net (for them). Now 1 million to 2 million new children have fallen into poverty, probably extreme poverty. I mean, this is a real debacle.

I think that it just means that we're going to have to move in a new direction. The debate at this moment is both promising and discouraging. ... I hope that this period of economic insecurity is going to wake us all up. It is so important that while we talk about relief for the people who caused this — because otherwise that would jeopardize everything and you've got to get things flowing again — that we will make sure that we will do something for the people who are the chief victims of this and do something to deal with unacceptable levels of poverty at time when our safety net is at its weakest in memory.

We do have so many people suffering at the bottom, and most of them were playing by the rules. This is a time to create those jobs with decent wages and, more importantly, prepare the next generation of children through good health care, through early child care education, through decent schools where you've got a majority of your children learning how to read and compute.
We're really going to begin to invest in our human capital. If we don't invest in our children, we are not going to be able to compete in the global arena.

M-M: In your book, you mention that you want significant legislation on children's health care in 2009. What's your opinion of the new State Children's Health Insurance Plan law that President Obama signed last week, and does it accomplish what you would like to see?

MWE: No. It's an unfinished business step from the Bush era. We worked on CHIP very hard 11 years ago and tried to implement it well and worked to get it renewed, but it is not the health care reform that our children need this year. It will, over a few years, add another 4 million and that is progress ... but it leaves 5 (million) of the 9 million children out of the house.

The operative word in H.R. 747, our new bill that was reintroduced as the All Healthy Children's Act, is "all": All children need to come into the health care house, and all pregnant women need coverage. (The act was introduced on Jan. 28 by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va.) The CHIP bill gave states an option to cover pregnant women, but with the cradle-to-prison pipeline and some of these children being born at low birth weight and with two or three strikes against them, we need to have prenatal care, and it needs to be automatic and required.

(CHIP) does not set up a national safety net for children, and many states are dealing with the economic downturn by cutting back on CHIP roles. CHIP is not an entitlement, unlike Medicaid, and we think that every child should be guaranteed health care regardless of the lottery of geography. ... In our bill, which we are supporting, would say that anybody with income up to 300 percent of the national poverty level, or $63,000, would be guaranteed health care regardless of where they live, and that people with income above that would be able to buy in at an affordable cost.

The children on CHIP don't have the guarantee of a comprehensive list of benefits. They did add dental because we lost a child here to a tooth ache that abscessed and infected his brain, and so they put in dental, but they didn't put in mental health or all other medically necessary services that children need, which if you're on Medicaid you can get. All children should get the necessary benefits package, and so that's what the All Healthy Children's Act would do.

M-M: You've spoken some about what the federal government can do to address child poverty issues, but what can state and local governments and NGOs do?

MWE: What they have been doing. You know, all of the states have had opportunities to deal with (children's health care), and some of them have stepped up to the plate — New York State: (coverage for children from families with incomes up to) 400 percent of poverty and New Jersey: 350 percent of poverty. But then you've got all these states like Texas, Mississippi and Alabama that have been cutting back on children, making it as hard as they can to have them be able to get health care.
States all talk about stuff, but they have not dealt with the issues of growing poverty and I found their safety nets make it harder for people to come in when they are out of jobs. And now that the economy is in a downturn, this is the real test of the commitment — you know the people who they cut first are the children and the poor.

I think it is time to say that there are some things that have to be done, and that all of our children really do require an education, and we can't have 50 state levels of education quality. We've got over 80 percent of our black and Hispanic children not reading at grade level. We've got to do something about accountability standards. The resources that are needed are not coming from the state level. Most of the money that is going into children in the early years is coming from the federal government, so states should be asked to step up to the plate — same thing on health care.

M-M: The Children's Defense Fund recently celebrated its 35th anniversary. What has it accomplished in those years, and if you could, would you do anything differently?

MWE: Well, I would hope that we would be out of business after 35 years. It never occurred to me that it would be so hard to get the richest nation on Earth to take care of its children preventively. It saves money, and it saves lives.

We're an underdeveloped nation in the care and protection of our children. We are first in millionaires and billionaires and military expenditures and military exports and in the number of people we jail, but we are way down in the 20s — lagging behind many of the less-wealthy industrial nations — in infant mortality, low births weights and relative child poverty. ... The fact that we are way behind our competitor nations in investing in our children will be the cause of our economic downturn.
Over the last 35 or 40 years, we have woven — and it's been very hard — a major set of laws on the books and woven a safety net that has helped millions of children.

(The budget for) Head Start was $325 million when we started and it's now $6 billion, and, hopefully, if we can keep the money in the stimulus package, it will go to $8 billion. We have laws to enable disabled children the right to education that didn't exist until we published a report on children out of school and worked to get the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act. We've got the Medicaid for children, which serves about 30 million children, but we still got these children who are out of the house. We got CHIP, which added 6 million or 7 million, and now we're trying to finish it so that no child will be going without health care.

We have come a long way, but we have not come far enough, and child poverty is still at disgraceful levels. We're moving backwards because of the slide backwards in our education systems and our public education systems. We've just got to get our children prepared to compete, and we're not preparing huge numbers of them and for many, you see downward mobility. That's children of all colors — but children who are minority and poor are really moving backwards, and when you think about the sacrifice that so many parents made in the civil rights movement because they wanted their children to have better lives, to see what is happening now is quite tragic.

M-M: Let's talk about race in America. From the time of Dr. King to now with the election of Obama, how have opinions of race of America progressed? Have the bedrock values of America changed?

MWE: We have made a lot of progress on race, and the middle class has grown. We've got many more people in political power now. We've got an African American who's reached the pinnacle of power and is the leader of the free world — that's enormous progress. We've got people sitting up in Fortune 500 companies — although they are reflecting the same values that Dr. King would have decried. You've got members of state legislatures, and you've got Oprah, and you've got people in all aspects of American life. That's something to be very proud of, but you've also got this backwards move among the poor who didn't have the skills or didn't have the opportunities of those of us who were middle class and could walk through those doors and seize it.
Look at Dr. King's litmus test for America realizing its dream. He laid out the triple evils of militarism, excessive materialism and racism. ... When he died, he was calling for the end of the Vietnam War. He saw it as a drain on the resources of this great nation and the poor people of that nation. But he would not be pleased that we are bogged down in two wars now.

When you take excessive materialism, my goodness have we moved backwards; with this great gap between rich and poor and all these people at the top who just stole everything from the people at the bottom with the help of government. He would not be pleased by this growing gap between rich and poor and the growing number of poor people. So I think he would be calling for a poor people's campaign and a poor children's campaign today.

And I think he would be very clear that while we have made much racial progress, it's so clear that racial disparities still permeate everything, and while we are so proud of America's election of the president, we've got now to clean out all the racial disparities that cripple so many children in almost every aspect of American life.

M-M: What's at risk if we don't make progress in these areas? How would you motivate people to take control of the childhood poverty issues and motivate them to contribute to solving the problems?

MWE: Well, if we don't stop the growing incarceration and criminalization of America — we're the world's leading jailer — it's going to be a disaster. It really is becoming the American apartheid. We're expending, wasting in my view, but spending ($60 billion to $70 billion) a year on our prison system. It's a larger employer than General Motors, Wal-Mart or Ford, and states are stupidly spending three times more per prisoner than a school pupil, that's a pretty dumb investment policy. You cannot leave hundreds of thousands of children, millions of children, uneducated, unable to read and write, and expect that you're going to have a stronger economy in this globalizing world.

We all, as citizens, need to speak up to ensure that every child has a level playing field to try to succeed, that every child has an education and health care and early education, and that every child has a stable family that can play by the rules, earn money, get a good job and be able to support their families. But we've got to make sure that America's dream is real for all of us if we are, in fact, going to produce the kinds of citizens that are going to be the kind of productive workers that are going to help America be America. So I think that our very core is at stake, and I think that everybody can make a difference.

I think people can do a lot on a one-to-one basis. We've got to do that as they did in the civil rights movement and organize and e-mail our congressmen and go to those meetings and say, "We've got to invest in education. Don't you dare cut education." We've go to look at their voting records and tell them that we really do want them to find the money for health care for every child just like they found that $700 billion to bail out those bankers. We don't have a money problem, we have a values problem, we have a citizen-engagement problem, and I hope the same kind of energy that was reflected in this campaign and this election can now be transferred over into reweaving our sense of community and into new kinds of investment priorities that will give every child hope.

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