By Marian Wright Edelman
“No child living in America today should have to worry about whether they’ll have a place to sleep at night or enough food to eat. But these are daily realities for the 1 in 6 poor children in this country. Children like me.”
These are the words of 18-year-old Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota Beat the Odds® scholarship winner Israel Glenn in a petition to add a question about child poverty to an upcoming presidential debate. Israel continues: “Growing up on the North Side of Minneapolis, I know what it means to struggle. I’ve been homeless, spending school nights sleeping on park benches. I’ve been hungry, not knowing where my next meal would come from. I know what it means to have to work to support your family when you need to be focusing on school. And I know that other kids shouldn’t have to face these struggles. Every child in America should be able to focus on learning, growing and just being a kid.
“Did you know it’s been 20 years since there was a question about how to address child poverty in a presidential debate? But a child is born into poverty every minute in this country. Those children will face hunger, homelessness, illness, violence and toxic stress. And those children deserve answers about how the next president of the United States is going to make sure they get a fair shot at a better life. Ignoring this issue on the national debate stage sends a signal that children living in poverty are not a priority. To fix the problem, we need to put a spotlight on it. That’s why I’m calling for a question in the presidential debates about child poverty. I want to know what the next president is going to do to make sure the next generation won’t struggle like I did.”
Israel is beating the odds right now but it hasn’t been easy. For him, growing up poor meant frequent moves through unsafe neighborhoods, bullying, periods of homelessness and bouts of hunger. He remembers times when he cried every night. When he was a sophomore in high school he took a job with his school’s janitorial staff to help support his family and other students would deliberately make messes just to tease him as he cleaned up. Despite working 30 hours a week Israel excelled in school. He was ultimately elected class president and became the first person in his family to graduate from high school and go to college. He is a college freshman and determined to keep succeeding for his whole family, especially for his mom: “I want her to be proud of me and to experience through me the things she missed doing.” He also dreams of a future in politics so he can help others—especially families living in poverty. This petition is just a start.
He knows there is so much work to be done. New data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau showed children are the poorest age group in our country. Disgracefully almost one-third of the 38.1 million poor people in the United States are children. While the data show a reduction in child poverty in 2018, the number of poor children—11.9 million, 16.2 percent of all children—remains unacceptably high. More than 70 percent of poor children live in working families and the youngest children are the poorest children. The odds continue to be stacked against children of color who made up nearly three-quarters of all poor children in 2018. With nearly one in four poor, they are more than 2.5 times more likely to be poor than White children.
That’s why Israel and the Children’s Defense Fund want to make sure ending child poverty now becomes an urgent national priority and make sure it’s a priority for candidates who want to be president. They should be asked their specific plans for ending it. CDF’s new Ending Child Poverty Now report showed again that the United States could help millions escape poverty now by investing in existing policies and programs to increase employment, make work pay and meet basic child needs. We’d like to hear candidates’ own innovative ideas for tackling child poverty with urgency. So let’s all ask them, and keep asking them until they act to give every child a fair chance to succeed in America. As Israel says, “I was born, grew up, and graduated high school while I waited for answers. I’m done waiting.”
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund.
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