This is our American family today, where 1 in 6 … of our children lives in poverty in the richest nation on earth, more than 40% [of them] in extreme poverty. It is not a stable, healthy, economically sensible, or just family. Our failure to invest in all our children before they get sick, or drop out of school, get pregnant, or get into trouble is extremely costly. Every year that we let 13 million children live in poverty costs $500 billion in lost productivity, crime, and health costs.
A Civil Rights Legend’s Enduring Appeal to Our Better Angels
For more than five decades, Marian Wright Edelman has sought to support every child’s right to health, wellness, and prosperity.
Black History is being made everyday. However, every Black History Month, I reflect on the stories of brave, Black trailblazers who envision a future of what’s possible, act and speak up when others do not, and push others into places they never imagined going.
One living legend who has grounded me is Marian Wright Edelman. For over 50 years, she has tirelessly told anyone who will listen that all children are worthy of love, investment, care, kindness, and a sense of belonging. Her revolutionary efforts have involved challenging traditional power structures by pushing policymakers, and society more broadly, to advance racial equity and civil rights. Throughout her life she has championed policies that are designed to supercharge the change that empowers children and families to reach their full potential.
Catalyst for Change
Edelman may be best known for founding the Children’s Defense Fund, but my admiration starts in understanding the richness of her history. Born in the Jim-Crow South, Edelman graduated from Spelman College and Yale Law School and in 1964 became the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar. Three years later, as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund office in Jackson, Mississippi, she testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee tasked with addressing poverty. Her message to the subcommittee’s members: You don’t understand what is happening in this country. Come see for yourselves the intense poverty in Southern Black communities.
And they listened! U.S. Sen. Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy of New York, Sen. Joseph S. Clark, Jr. of Pennsylvania, and several others took up the challenge and went South with her. On their historic tour of the Mississippi Delta, the senators witnessed deep inequities: severe hunger and food insecurity, environmental dangers from chemical weed killers, and widespread layoffs of Black sharecroppers. Kennedy listened to children who had only molasses to eat, cried in bed from hunger at night, and were unable to go to school because of their hunger. The senator famously proclaimed, “If we can’t feed our children, what are we doing as a nation?”
The willingness of White leaders to listen to the vision and leadership of a Black woman was unparalleled. Their trip reinforced that poverty, homelessness, and hunger were not only common, but rooted in structural racism. It put Black children and families at the forefront of these legislators’ minds and built the will to make major changes. Edelman stoked fires that would cause these leaders and others to birth our nation’s social programs and overhaul others.
In the decades since, there has been major progress that cuts across racial lines. A recent study by Child Trends found child poverty has been cut in more than half since 1993. The researchers concluded that federal “safety net” programs—including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Social Security, and the Earned Income Tax Credit—play a key role (many of which were ushered in thanks to the senators Edelman pushed into action). These programs have contributed to a reduction of child poverty by 44 percent today.
In our work and mission to ensure all families have the resources they need to raise healthy, thriving children, Senator Kennedy’s question rings even more true for me now. If we can’t support our children and families to be at their healthiest, what are we doing as a nation? More than 8 million children still live in poverty. Children of color and children from families with low-income still face structural racism’s legacy through issues like residential segregation. Each year, I am disheartened by the calls to tear down important social programs without building something much better. More than ever, all of us need to muster the courage Edelman showed when she dared to question—and stand up to—the status quo.
A Call to Action We Can’t Ignore
Edelman has never stopped powerfully and courageously urging everyone to own the moral obligation to support children and families in overcoming obstacles to health and wellbeing.
She conjured this vision again when I was honored to hear her give her famous and stirring “America’s Sixth Child” speech. In the speech, Edelman asked listeners to imagine a wealthy family with six children. The family keeps five of the children warm and well-fed. It nurtures and educates them, takes care of their health, and gives them every opportunity for enrichment.
The sixth child goes without.
Using the statistics of that time, Edelman explained:
In other words: We are a land of abundance. We are a land that could feed and clothe and take care of every child. We could collectively invest in every family. And yet we choose—as a nation—to let families go without.
Living Her Legacy
Keeping Edelman’s legacy strong means recognizing how economic inequality affects the health and opportunities available to millions of children and families in the U.S. It means acknowledging that although good social programs exist for when families fall on hard times, new policies must address the core of Edelman’s message—that every child and family is worthy.
What does that mean in practice? It means:
● Recognizing our shared fate: that every family and every child’s health is connected to all families and all our health. Building shared responsibility ensures government, private sector, and families can work together toward improving everyone's health.
● Creating an inclusive, economic system that includes all families: ensuring opportunity to access the resources they need to thrive, regardless of race, class, or family structure. That means:
o Disrupting the racial wealth divide, and ensuring families can live on the income they earn.
o Ensuring families have access to help—if they need it—and removing long-standing and arbitrary barriers to social programs.
● Making sure families are at decisionmaking tables, disrupting current power structures that have neglected their needs.
● Honoring and elevating the role of caregivers and reimagining care.
There are many steps needed to advance these goals. I’ll mention two that are dear to me and truly demonstrate that each and every child is worthy:
Baby bonds, a policy that financially invests in children from the day they are born. For example, Connecticut’s CT Baby Bonds Initiative, when implemented, will set aside funds for children born into poverty. As adults, they can choose to use their savings to buy a home, start a business, pay for higher education or job training, or save for retirement.
Guaranteed income, that recognizes that everyone should have a baseline of income that expands their choices and ability to meet their family’s essential needs. The American Rescue Plan stimulus checks and the expanded Child Tax Credit delivered to millions of U.S. households during the COVID-19 crisis and represented this policy in action. With cash in hand, families were able to pay down debt, stay afloat during a national emergency, and in some cases save for any additional crisis. Now that we’ve seen it work, we should make programs that recognize that we all should have a foundation of resources a part of our social programs nationwide.
While those two ideas represent what’s possible and give every child and family reassurance that they are worthy, there is much more we must and can do. As a nation rich with abundance, we have choices about our priorities and what they are. Marian Wright Edelman called on us to resolve the plight of the sixth child and yet today we still have not. We can choose a different pathway. We can choose to be a country that values and cares for every child—and gives every family the opportunity to thrive.
Here's how we're investing in child and family wellbeing.>>
About the Author
Jennifer Ng’andu, managing director–Program, at RWJF, helps lead grantmaking activities to advance social and environmental changes that help ensure that all children and their families have the full range of opportunities and resources to lead healthy lives, starting from a child’s earliest years.