• by Marian Wright Edelman • IDRA Newsletter • April 1996 • 

When Jesus Christ invited little children to come unto him, he did not invite only rich, middle-class, White, male children without disabilities, from two-parent families, or our own children to come. He welcomed all children. There are no illegitimate children in God’s sight. James Agee eloquently reminded: “In every child who is born under no matter what circumstances and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again, and in him, too, one more, and each of us, our terrific responsibility toward human life: toward the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of terrorism, and of God.”

Yet every day too many of us fail our terrific responsibility toward our own children and millions of other people’s children who are America’s and God’s potentiality.

It is not just poor or minority children who are afflicted by the breakdown of moral, family and community values today. The pollution of our airwaves, air, food and water; growing economic insecurity among middle-class children and young families; rampant drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy and domestic violence among rich, middle-class and poor people alike; AIDS; random gun and terrorist violence; resurging racial intolerance in our places of learning, work and worship; and the crass, empty materialism of too much of our culture threaten every American child. Affluenza is a more dangerous virus than influenza for millions of American children.

Every day in America, 2,660 children are born into poverty and 27 die from poverty. And every day 7,962 children of all races and classes are reported abused or neglected, and three die from abuse; 15 die from firearms and 2,833 drop out of school; 2,700 get pregnant; and 790 are born at low birthweight. We are first in the world in military and health technology but 18th in the industrialized world in infant mortality.

But it is poor children who suffer most. What kind of country permits this? A poor one? An undemocratic one? An uncaring one? A foolish one? One that ignores the biblical injunction to “defend the poor and fatherless and do justice to the afflicted and needy?”

Our failure to place children first as parents, communities, corporate, civic, cultural and political leaders is our Achilles’ heel and will be our future undoing. Indeed the present unraveling of our family fabric is a portent of what is to come if we do not correct course and regain our moral moorings. The stresses and strains of making a living leave too many parents too little time with their children. Too many affluent parents are more preoccupied with material than with eternal things – with fun rather than faithfulness in providing the family rituals, continuity and consistent companionship children need to grow up healthy, caring, loving and productive. Parenting itself is not a valued calling, and people who care for children get the least support in America. Too many neighbors look out just for themselves and take little or no interest in each other’s children. Too many business people seem to forget they are parents and family members and treat children as consumers to whom they can market excessively violent, sexually charged messages and products they would not want their own children to see or use. And too many faith communities fail to provide the strong moral leadership parents and communities need to meet their shared responsibilities to children.

What you and I stand for and do now as parents – and encourage our political leaders to stand for and do in this last national election year of the century – will shape our nation’s fate and our children’s futures in the next century and millennium. It is time to call the moral question about whether America truly values and will stand up for children not just with words but with work; not just with promises but with leadership and investment in child health, early childhood education, after-school programs and family economic security; not just with a speech or photo opportunity, but with sustained positive commitment to meet child needs.

What does it mean to be for children? A young mother walked into a WIC (Women, Infants and Children’s nutritional program) office seeking help to feed her hungry baby. When an overworked and tired WIC worker saw the baby drinking from a red liquid, she was ready to reprimand the mother. Didn’t she know that babies needed milk, not Kool-Aid? As she was about to scold, the young mother broke into tears. She had run out of money a week ago, hadn’t eaten in three days, and had used her last money to buy baby formula which had run out the day before. She knew her baby needed to eat so she had gone to McDonald’s and filled the baby’s bottle with two free things: ketchup and water.

Do you think this hungry baby is responsible for America’s ills – for our budget deficit, crime problem and poor education system? For the structural changes, wage stagnation in our labor market, de-industrialization of our cities and economic blight in many rural areas? Do this baby and desperate mother have any control over the downsizing of giant corporations, the replacement of human workers by technology or the exportation of jobs abroad in our global economy? Is this baby, who had a one in three chance of being born without timely prenatal care and a one in four chance of being born poor, the cause or the victim of the widening income gap between rich and poor that allowed 23,000 poor families with children to live on less income in 1993 than one entertainment industry executive and let the average CEO at 10 major companies earn 225 times the salary of the companies’ average worker in 1994, up from 41 times in 1975?

This baby did not manufacture or sell the 211 million guns circulating in our nation that kill an American child like her every hour and a half. She did not contribute to the pervasive breakdown of moral, family and community values in our too selfish and too secular culture. And this baby is not responsible for her mother’s or father’s poverty or behavior. Or ours.

This baby did not vote for Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals or conservatives, cannot make campaign contributions, lobby or hold press conferences to make her needs known.

This baby – like my child and yours – is a sacred gift of a loving God and a citizen of the wealthiest nation in the history of the planet. Denying her food, preventive health care, the chance to get ready for and learn in school, and access to safe child care if her parents work outside the home is immoral and lacks common sense and budget sense.

Blaming and punishing this baby for our personal or collective discontents, for the shortcomings and unfairness of our economy, or for short-term political or economic gain contravenes the Old and New Testament and American covenants we honor so well in words but so poorly in deeds.

The current budget balancing debate is not about money. It is about values and ideology and national direction and the ideals of fairness and morality we seek to reflect and pass on to our children.

Have we Americans become so allergic to sharing, caring and sacrifice that we will continue to sit back mute and stand by apathetically when our leaders make decisions that mock the prophets, the gospel and basic fair play? Have we become so spiritually dead that the morally unthinkable killing and maiming of children is acceptable? Will we let powerful lobbyists trample powerless children and corporate welfare grow at the expense of child welfare? Do we believe massive back-end investment is preferable to front-end investment in prevention and early intervention? Does it make sense for the Pentagon to spend $20 million an hour when the internal enemies of poverty, violence, neglect and abuse are killing our children every day? Is America more about providing hope and opportunity or about providing Mortal Kombat and the Power Rangers for our young? Is the American dream only for some of us or is it for all of us?

The prodigal son returned home before it was too late. The rich man did not. Can America come home before it’s too late to its founding creed of God-given human equality and act to leave no child behind?

Marian Wright Edelman is the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund. Reprinted from the State of America’s Children Yearbook 1996 with permission. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]