By Marian Wright Edelman
No child should have to worry where her next meal will come from or whether she will have a place to sleep each night in the wealthiest nation on earth. Yet more than 12.8 million poor children in America face these harsh realities every day. It is a moral disgrace, a costly injustice and a profound economic threat that nearly 1 in 5 children are poor in our boastfully wealthy nation. Nearly 4 in 10 of our children spend at least a year in poverty before their 18th birthday and more than 1 in 10 struggle through at least half their childhoods in poverty. More than 2 in 3 poor children are children of color. Most shamefully, our youngest children are our poorest during their years of greatest brain development. Permitting millions of children to live in poverty—many denied basic human needs of housing, enough food and a chance to get ready for school and attend schools with equal funding and quality—is unjust. We are failing our children and our nation.
When we let millions of children grow up poor without basic necessities like food, housing and health care, we deny them equal opportunities to succeed in life and rob our nation of their future contributions. Poverty decreases a child’s chances of graduating from high school and increases her chances of becoming a poor adult. It makes her more likely to suffer illnesses and get sucked into the criminal justice system. Beyond human costs, child poverty has huge economic costs for all of us. Our nation loses about $700 billion a year from lost productivity and increased health and crime costs stemming from child poverty.
Child poverty is an urgent and preventable crisis for which solutions already exist if we have the moral and economic sense to expand and invest in them. In 2017 benefits like nutrition assistance, housing vouchers and tax credits helped lift nearly 7 million children out of poverty. However, inadequate funding, eligibility restrictions and low parental wages left millions of children behind. We can and must do more to help all children escape poverty now.
In 2015, the Children’s Defense Fund published the first of our groundbreaking Ending Child Poverty Now reports that showed, for the first time, how America could immediately lift millions more children out of poverty by simply improving and investing in existing policies and programs that work. Four years later it is unconscionable that our leaders are still debating and millions of our poor children are still waiting to have their basic survival needs met. Millions of children needlessly suffer in poverty because of our nation’s inaction. How many more years, child lives and taxpayer dollars will we waste before we end child poverty?
This week CDF released a new edition of Ending Child Poverty Now, updating our earlier study with help from the Urban Institute, and issued another call for an immediate reduction in child poverty for 5.5 million children. It confirms once again that we can act now to end child poverty for a majority of children and raise family incomes for millions more. By investing a small percentage of our federal budget into existing programs and policies rather than tax breaks for wealthy corporations, billionaires and millionaires, we can reduce child poverty at least 57 percent and help 95 percent of all poor children.
These child investments would cost $52.3 billion—1.4 percent of federal spending and 0.3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). This is a moral necessity and economic bargain our nation—which approved nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations in 2017—can easily afford. Every dollar invested in reducing child poverty will return at least seven dollars to our economy and help save our nation’s future and soul.
The bottom line is simple: we can save hundreds of billions by investing in healthy, educated children or spend hundreds of billions more in prison and illiteracy costs. Children only have one childhood and it is right now. We cannot afford to wait another 3, 5 or 10 years to end child poverty and this report shows we do not have to. The question is not whether we have the knowledge or resources to end child poverty, but whether we have the moral decency, common sense and political will to help every child reach healthy, productive adulthood. Let all of us make our voices heard and demand action for our children to live free from poverty.