Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” When I consider the somber headlines of the past week or so, I wonder about our soul:
- Census data show that one in six Americans is living in poverty, including 22% of children last year (40% of black children).
- Poverty has increased for four years in a row.
- The proportion of children with at least one unemployed parent doubled between 2007 and 2010, and there is evidence that a parent’s job loss can have a negative effect on children’s academic performance.
- A new study showed an increase in child abuse, specifically against infants, linked to the recession.
When children grow up in poverty, they grow up with chronic stress. Constant change and uncertainty in their lives causes biological responses that result in wear and tear on their bodies and minds. Long-term stress can damage the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential to learning and memory.
This helps explain why many children who come from poverty don’t do as well in school, and are less likely to graduate from high school. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, they lag in both intellectual and emotional development, and they are more likely to become the poor parents of the future.
Even if your only interest is your self-interest, you should care about these statistics. The longer we have so many children living in poverty, the more our country loses economically from lower productivity, poorer health and higher crime rates.
Last Sunday’s Washington Post ran an editorial titled “Debt Reduction with Compassion”. It argued that we cannot reduce the deficit on the backs of the most vulnerable in society. We have to recognize how much people have suffered and lost during the recession, and not cut off the safety net for them. But how often do we hear the word “compassion” in the current political climate?
I’ve been thinking about what any one of us can do to make a difference for children. Here are some ideas:
- Think about who and what you vote for. Which candidates are committed to keeping funding in place for programs that benefit children?
- Be an advocate, in your community and beyond. Speak out about legislation and programs that are important for ensuring a happy and healthy next generation
- Support teachers and education in your community.
- Support the organizations that are working to change lives, such as:
Children’s Defense Fund – In existence for 35 years, this organization works to “ensure a level playing field for all children” and to “lift children out of poverty”
Feeding America – Works with a network of food banks to eliminate hunger in America; child hunger is a priority.
HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) – A parent-involvement, school-readiness program that operates on the idea that parents are their children’s first teachers.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America – Their mission is “To enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens,” through programs in leadership, education, life skills, sports and fitness, and the arts
What do we want the soul of our society to look like? If we truly care about giving our children and grandchildren a decent life, then “all of us have to recognize that we owe our children more than we have been giving them”.*