As long as our children suffer, the state of our union should embarrass us all

As long as our children suffer, the state of our union should embarrass us all
© Getty

A society should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable and most valuable members: its children. By that measure, we do not need this week’s State of the Union address from the president to tell us what is abundantly clear: The state of our union is shamefully inadequate.

A new report released Monday by our research team at the Children’s Defense Fund reveals how seriously America is failing its children. The latest data shows that every day in this country, five children are killed by abuse or neglect, nine children are killed by guns, and 61 babies die before their first birthday. Each day 1,683 children are born into poverty. For the first time in a decade, the number of children without health coverage is rising. 

And as we reach a critical turning point in 2020, when children of color will become the majority of children in America, we are failing these children worst of all.

ADVERTISEMENT

Of the nearly 12 million children living in poverty, 73 percent are children of color. One in six children in America lives with food insecurity, with Black and Hispanic children twice as likely to not have enough nutritious food to eat. Our schools have slipped back into deep and damaging patterns of racial and socioeconomic segregation, causing achievement gaps to widen.

Children of color are targeted by a discriminatory school discipline and the youth justice system that fuels a cradle-to-prison pipeline. At our borders and around the country, we tear immigrant and refugee children away from their parents and put them in cages. 

Is this who we are? Are we a nation that abandons and neglects our most innocent and vulnerable citizens? Are we a society that not only condones but promotes a cycle of poverty that prevents millions of children from ever having the chance to live up to their potential? 

To succeed, children need stable homes, quality health care, ample nutritious food, good schools, safe neighborhoods, and access to resources and opportunities that enable them to reach their potential. This most recent data makes it clear that for too many of our children, especially children of color, these basic building blocks are out of reach.

And yet, in the wealthiest nation in the world, the proportion of federal dollars invested in children has fallen to its lowest level in a decade. The shameful state of our children is not an inevitability — it is a choice. We do not lack the resources to make sure every child has a chance to succeed. We choose to invest them elsewhere.

ADVERTISEMENT

America neglects its children at its peril. Our country’s economic security and position in the world tomorrow is entirely dependent on the childhoods taking place in our country today. With millions of American youths marked by trauma, hunger, fear, and violence, the future looks increasingly bleak.

But as we as a nation reflect on the state of our union, let us remember that we have another option. We can secure our future by investing in our most precious resource: our children. We can be a country that fulfills its moral imperative to make sure every single child has the resources and opportunities they need to succeed.

The state of America’s children is unacceptable, but it is a choice. It is time we choose, finally, to put our children first.

Max Lesko is the national executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund.