(part 3 of 4)
My parents were products of growing up during the depression. My mother was the only child of a school teacher and architect (on the side) and managed to go to a two year trade school beyond high school. My father was the youngest of four boys whose father was the poultry king of southern New Jersey until he lost everything during the depression. My father grew up as part of a tenement farming family and had several paper routes and odd jobs to help his family. His oldest brother had a mental breakdown as a result of the family's losses and struggles.
Somehow, my dad and his two other brothers managed to get through high school and, as a result of WWII, the Korean conflict, labor unions and the GI bill, managed to work themselves into the middle class. My childhood was marked by an ingrained understanding that poverty and hunger was not going to be an option and education combined with hard work was the key to opening the doors of opportunity and success. As my dad liked to say: "when I die, I'm leaving you the same thing my father left me… the whole wide world to work in." His greatest regret in life was "never having the chance to go to college." I was the youngest of four children and the first to graduate from a four year college. My children were never presented with an option that education ends after high school. Pursuing a higher education (post high school degree) was expected.
I look at what kind of opportunities and successes are waiting for those who are growing up today and I become angry! I'm angered by the road blocks that are placed in the way of our children. The road blocks of poverty, hunger, inadequate and unequal access to education and the growing self-centeredness of the "me and mine" culture that is eroding our sense of community. I don't have a problem with magnet and charter schools as long as they are a part of the public school system. School vouchers (however) are the height of immoral selfishness when they can be used by the privileged to help send their children to private schools at the cost of alleviating their responsibility to help make sure the children of their neighbors and community have access to a good education. The school privatization legislation being put forth by the for profit school industry through groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), in my estimation, is tantamount to corporate and politically sanctioned child abuse.
Children (at home and abroad) are being exposed to a greater risk of poverty, food insecurity, exploitation and an inadequate education as a result of recent US public policies and business practices. Here’s how:
- Child Poverty:
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (Columbia University) – More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children (1 in 5) – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families.
Spending data released by the Administration for Children and Families shows that state spending of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and related state maintenance of effort (MOE) funds declined again in federal fiscal year 2012. States reported spending or transferring to related programs a total of $31.36 billion, down nearly $2 billion from fiscal year 2011.
- Food Insecurity:
With the separating out of Article IV funding for feeding programs from farm subsidies in the Farm Bill, programs supporting prenatal and childhood food security through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are now at risk (like the WIC – Women and Infant Care Program, School Breakfast Program, Fresh Fruits Lunch Program, Special Milk Program, Summer food Service Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, and National School Lunch Program). Beyond children this also effects programs that support Food Pantries, Seniors, Native Americans and other hunger fighting agencies and efforts.
- Exporting Child Exploitation to Import Cheap Goods:
Last year it was Nestle and their cocoa suppliers in Côte d'Ivoire. This year it’s Walmart and their supposed “labor rights certified” shrimp suppliers in Thailand. The reality is that corporate America has to do a better job of policing their suppliers and the labor practices they engage in. According to the Stop Child Labor Coalition, “An annual study (2012) by risk analysis firm Maplecroft has revealed that 76 countries now pose ‘extreme’ child labor complicity risks for companies operating worldwide, due to worsening global security and the economic downturn. This constitutes an increase of more than 10% from last year’s total of 68 ‘extreme risk’ countries.”
- Inadequate Education for our Children:
After a 5.27 percent reduction in the $8 billion budget for Head start and Early Head Start programs because of the actions of Congress this March by enacting the sequester, 57,000 children will be cut from Head Start programs.
Now that colleges are finally required to report graduation rates and States are using more accurate measures for reporting high school graduation rates, we are staring to understand some of the good and bad trends that have developed. In terms of High School Graduation rates, the past decade has seen us grow to a better than 80% graduation rate over all. That’s almost twice what it was 40 to 50 years ago. However, statistics reveal a less promising picture based on racial disparities in graduation rates. If you combine that with the impact of growing up in low income neighborhoods, than it’s no wonder that college graduation rates based on race, gender and economic history produce results that point out our nation's glaring inequalities in education.
States complain about the increasing costs of education. However the data doesn’t support their claims. The American Council on Education tells us; “Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059.” Here’s another statistic to consider: “It costs $34,135 per year to house an average prisoner” according to The Real Cost of Prisons Project, yet according to the National Census Bureau the national average per pupil expenditure (PPE) amounts for public elementary-secondary school systems for fiscal year 2011 was $10,560 (down $40/student from the previous year). This is either a penny-wise, pound foolish approach to building a better society, or there's just more money in it for those who run private prisons than those who are dedicated to teaching our children well.
I haven’t even gone into depth about studies about funding inequity that show that more affluent communities and public school systems get better access to equipment and funding than do schools in poorer communities and districts.
I’m not trying to paint an impossibly bleak picture for us, but help us to realize how far we are sinking into the depths of greed and selfishness at the expense of our children, tomorrow’s workers, voters and caretakers of society.
The great news is that we are not sunk yet! High school graduation rates are at a 30 year high, even though our teachers and their unions are under constant criticism and attack. Now we just need to get behind our educators and make sure that they have the resources and community support to do their job effectively and with our heartfelt gratitude.
I was inspired last week at the commemoration events for the March on Washington on Saturday, August 24th. A young (9 year old) activist for education, Asean Johnson spoke about his hopes and dreams for what public education can and should be for all students, regardless of race, gender and economic means. Asean has fought against school closings and overcrowded classrooms and when he discovered that his own school didn’t have the same access to technology and resources that more affluent schools had, he had the courage to publically ask why. Students and children are mobilizing and trying to wake the rest of us up to what is going on in at risk neighborhoods and communities across this country. They get it, why can’t we adults? Have we become that callous and selfish? Can we possibly turn things around so that the whole wide world we leave to our children to work in is one filled with possibilities and hope? I think we can. I think it’s not too late, yet, but we have to get it together soon or it just may become an almost impossible task. I hope Asean and others will help to show us the way, but more importantly, I hope we will listen as they try!
I want to end with this quote: “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. …When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr. 4/4/1967
Next and finally, I want to focus on Labor: Organized and Mobilized for a Better Tomorrow.
Rev. Steve Clunn serves as the Coalition Coordinator for the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Clergy in the Upper New York Annual Conference, Steve's work at MFSA focuses on coordinating United Methodist caucus groups in their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons in the life of the Church.