In a recent conversation about declining student performance, a frustrated and passionate elementary school teacher broke into tears as she told me, “I have far too many kids who show up each day with empty stomachs. My heart is heavy for these children. We have to fill their stomachs before we can reach their minds.”
We, the people of the United States of America, despite our relentless effort to maintain a more perfect union, failed to do so in 2013, and we will falter again in 2014 if we continue to neglect the health and welfare of our children.
Our children live in poverty. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that there more than 16.1 million American children (nearly one-quarter) living in poverty. Many are in working-class families, and a disproportionate number are black and Latino. A study published in 2013 by the Southern Education Foundation revealed that 48 percent of all public school children come from homes with incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced lunches.
Our children are being killed. One hundred and ninety-four children were shot and killed in America in 2013, according to Mother Jones. In Chicago alone, 58 teenagers and children were killed this year in a six-month period. A Children’s Defense Fund Study, “Protect Children, Not Guns 2013” (pdf), found that America’s rate of child-shooting deaths is four times higher than Canada’s and 65 times higher than the United Kingdom’s. Equally inconceivable is that the number of children and teens killed by guns in one year would fill 134 classrooms of 20 students each.
Our children are exploited. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that 750-1,500 juveniles are at risk for trafficking in a single state each year. Another Tennessee Bureau of Investigation study showed statistics (pdf) that every two minutes a child in our great nation is trafficked for sexual exploitation. Ark of Hope for Children statistics estimate that more than 300,000 American children are at risk for commercial sex trafficking annually.
Where’s the public outcry? Are we so preoccupied with political gridlock over health care reform or our national thirst for consumerism and entertainment that we fail to comprehend the devastation facing America’s children? We have politicians who fight against health care coverage and assistance to children living in poverty. We have parents who neglect their primary responsibility to nurture and care for their children. We have media that has spent more time spotlighting Miley Cyrus’ twerking than black children being murdered in Chicago. We have a cacophony of voices in American religious institutions railing against homosexuality and gay marriage, but muted sounds about the plight of our children. When did our children become such a low priority?
There are those who disagree that America’s children in need are a national issue. Some point to single heads of households on public assistance or teens having babies as the primary cause of the crisis among our children; they say let the liberals and others who give them handouts deal with the problem. Others, like Fox host Bill O’Reilly, blame African-American girls for the challenges black children face and tell them to stop having babies, which is like blaming gloating Republican leaders for Obamacare computer glitches.
Instead of ignoring the problem because we feel faultless, let’s make a commitment in 2014 to help America’s poor children and children at risk.
There are many long-term strategies and solutions; however, there are also short-term solutions just waiting for our active engagement. Here are five of them.
1. As responsible citizens, we must give our time, money and talents to local and national organizations that advocate for and support children in need, such as Save the Children, United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Youth on their Own, food banks and others.
2. We must demand positive action from elected officials, law enforcement and other public servants who have taken oaths to protect and serve all citizens, regardless of income levels, or vote them out of office. Ask them to devote funding to programs that support needy children and to overhaul Child Protective Services to better protect children from abusive home environments.
3. We must each reach out individually to identify children and families in need in our communities and neighborhoods and lend a helping hand by volunteering with organizations that serve low-income children and teens, like Youth on Their Own, or adopt a family in need.
4. Religious leaders from all faiths must unite and lead the charge to save our children. This involves promoting awareness and mobilizing congregations to join the fight, committing needed resources, tithing to fight hunger and demanding legislative action to address the poverty and crime debilitating our nation’s children.
5. The media must intensify its coverage and better inform the public about the crisis facing America’s children, raising public awareness about opportunities to make a difference in a child’s life. Let’s have fewer stories about Kim and Kanye and more stories about how to help our children.
The time is now, as the New Year begins, to make 2014 the remarkable year during which “We, the people of the United States of America,” create positive change for our nation’s children.
Daisy Jenkins, JD, is president of Daisy Jenkins & Associates, specializing in human resources consulting and executive and developmental coaching. She currently serves on the board of directors for Tucson Regional Economics Opportunity Inc. (TREO). She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.