"Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. The potential for greatness lives within each of us." - Frederick Douglass
America has always been a land of hope and opportunity. But, the promise of the American Dream, if it is to remain real, must be constantly defended by all of us against the threats of injustice, racism, intolerance, poverty, inequity and despair. These threats are both real and often have life-long consequences for children.
In the case of Charm City or Baltimore, those of us residing in Maryland have witnessed simultaneously changes that have resulted in some important improvements and some devastating setbacks over the last few decades. But for kids, the results are less than positive.
CNN reporter John Blake returned to the neighborhood he grew up in to cover the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody and the subsequent riots in West Baltimore.
In thinking back on the changes he witnessed, Blake said:
It's surreal to see your old neighborhood go up in flames as commentators try to explain the rage with various complex racial and legal theories. But when I returned to my home this week, the rage made sense to me.
Blake speaks to how the crack epidemic in the 1980s, the subsequent mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, the elimination of well-paying working class jobs, and a public policy environment that increases the investment in jails and police but not in public schools, libraries, jobs programs and recreation centers had harmed Baltimore.
We are failing our nation's youngest citizens with such misplaced priorities. According to Blake:
... when I returned to my old playing fields, they were overgrown with weeds or barred with locked gates. I heard the same story from residents. The city had closed the pools, removed the basketball goals and, as recently as 2013, closed 20 recreation centers. I didn't see any kids playing baseball or football in the streets.
Blake also quotes 27-year-old Juan Grant as saying, "They've taken the city away from us. We have nowhere to go and nothing to do."
Several important studies confirm these perspectives. One by Johns Hopkins researchers Karl Anderson, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson, who followed 790 white and black children from Baltimore over the course of 25 years, found very little economic and social mobility from one generation to the next. According to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post:
Almost none of the children from low-income families made it through college. Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds.
There was also a profound difference in job opportunities between white and black men from low-income backgrounds who did not attend college. The researchers found that white men who did not attend college were three times more likely to find good-paying jobs, such as construction trades and industrial crafts, in what remains of Baltimore's industrial economy than black men from similar backgrounds. Adds Strauss, "Among high school dropouts, at age 22, 89 percent of white dropouts were working compared with 40 percent of black dropouts."
A separate research project led by John Hopkins professor Kristen Mmari on the health challenges faced by 2,400 15- to 19-year-olds from impoverished areas in Baltimore, Shanghai, Johannesburg, Ibadan, and New Delhi, as well as their perceptions of their environments, found that teenagers in Baltimore fared poorly.
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, reported that teenagers in Baltimore and Johannesburg, despite being located in comparably wealthy countries than teenagers in Shanghai, Ibadan and New Delhi, had far worse health outcomes and tended to have more negative perceptions of their communities, including greater levels of exposure to violence and a lack of social supports and cohesion.
According to Mmari:
When you think about poor adolescents, you may instantly think of a child in Africa because there are poorer countries there, but it's not really the country that is important. Right here in Baltimore, we have kids who are much worse off than those in African cities. The inner-city kids who are exposed to all this violence are who we should be thinking about.
Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who represents Baltimore, is calling for the country to reassess its priorities. As he said:
We have to invest in our cities and our children. A lot of young people feel that they have been disconnected and we have to have what I call an 'inclusion revolution,' and address issues such as joblessness and training for young people.
In a separate interview, Cummings added:
... not just Baltimore, by the way, but the entire country needs to take a warning from this. We have got to do better by our children.
'We have to do better by our children" on @TheCNNnewz
— Elijah E. Cummings (@RepCummings) April 29, 2015
The focus by Cummings on investing in our children is both wise and desperately needed. As Frederick Douglass, who was born in Maryland once said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
Unfortunately, as a society, we are doing the opposite. In our forthcoming publication, Children's Budget, the share of federal spending dedicated to children will be shown to have dropped below 8 percent in 2014.
And, according to the Urban Institute, federal spending on interest on the federal debt will soon eclipse all federal investments in children combined.
The declining investment in children is undercutting our nation's future. Rev. Jamal Bryant, a well-known Baptist minister in Baltimore, points out:
If you don't invest in [the kids in West Baltimore] now, you're just going to have to build more prisons. And that just seems like that's what the plan is. They won't educate you. But they'll incarcerate you in a minute.
Doing better by our children requires a fresh look at the children themselves, to hear their voices, and an understanding of their needs. Teacher Joanna Noll wrote about the children -- her former students -- in Baltimore and explained:
I had to write this today because the teens and young people of Baltimore are human beings. They are not animals. They are not thugs. They are not leeches on society. They are not scary. The vast majority are not criminals. They have hopes and dreams. They groan at the goofy jokes their teachers tell them. They cry when their pets die. They mourn the loss of the people they love. They have favorite songs and favorite movies. They fall in and out of love. They make good and bad decisions and do stupid and smart things. They are human, not a wall of humanity. We need to see the complexity of the whole...
But, this isn't just a problem affecting teens and young adults. Significant disparities and trauma for children in this country begins at birth. A new report by Save The Children highlights that the United States has higher maternal and infant mortality rates than all other developed nations in the world. The report also finds that there are great disparities even within our own nation as "urban child survival gaps between rich and poor are greater than those found in developing countries" and that Baltimore, once again, has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country.
Therefore, if we are going to "do better by our children," as Rep. Cummings has called for, the first step requires that we recognize that Baltimore's children and youth have a voice that needs to be respected. After a meeting he had with students at West Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School, Rep. Cummings said:
One of the things that I heard over and over again. . .was our children saying they felt that they were not being heard. . . . It's about pain, frustration, and trying to make sure that they have a way to see their futures. . . . They have given us an opportunity as adults to put a mirror up to ourselves and ask the question: How can we make their lives better?
— The Intersection (@theintersection) April 28, 2015
Noll agrees. As she says:
The conversation must be multidimensional. The conversation needs to encompass the abject, crushing poverty, the lack of jobs, the lack of a living wage, the crumbling school system, the lack of resources for people and families in crisis, the violence and hopelessness, the painful history of our country in relationship to race, class, and gender, the portrayal of people of color as a monolith by the media, the futility of the American Dream in many of our decrepit, forgotten places, and it absolutely must be about the powerful systems in place and people who are the keepers of these systems that abuse the most vulnerable who have no voice.
Consequently, we must ask ourselves whether we are doing "what's best for our nation's children" and resolve to prevent and put an end to further tragedies involving our youngest citizens. This requires a national dialogue and bipartisan commitment to forge solutions to address the multifaceted problems facing our nation's children.
There are a number of things that can happen in the short-term, including Maryland Governor Larry Hogan releasing the $68.1 million that the Legislature dedicated to Maryland's urban public schools that he has been withholding. He can fix that with the simple stroke of a pen.
In addition, at First Focus, we have a number of policy priorities at both the federal and state levels that we believe should be considered, including 14 new ideas by a range of distinguished authors that have been published in our Big Ideas series entitled Pioneering Change: Innovative Ideas for Children and Families.
Among the array of policy options that we have put forth, I would highlight two initiatives that could have long-term and lasting implications for children, including: (1) the creation of a Child Poverty Target based on the successful example of the United Kingdom in 1999; and, (2) the reestablishment of a National Commission on Children, just as was done in 1987 to improve the lives and outcomes of our nation's children.
First, our nation and state governments should adopt a commitment to cut child poverty in half by 2025. Nobody -- no matter their political ideology -- should find it acceptable that 20 percent of our nation's children live in poverty.
And, although it will not be easy, it is clearly doable. In fact, the British have successfully implemented it and significantly cut poverty after Prime Minister Tony Blair put the Child Poverty Target in place in 1999.
Second, our nation should reestablish a National Commission on Children. At the direction of President George Bush and Congress on December 22, 1987, the United States created a National Commission on Children to "serve as a forum on behalf of the children of the nation."
In its final report, the bipartisan members of the National Commission on Children cautioned that "investing in children is no longer a luxury, but a national imperative" and made an array of recommendations that generated momentum for a number of critical policies that were used by President Bill Clinton and Congress as a catalyst for enacting a number of improvements, including adoption of the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Today, both the CTC and CHIP are significant and bipartisan success stories for children.
A generation later, support and attention to the needs of children has fallen and the need to invest in children and our future is once again both a moral and economic imperative. If we are committed to ending the tragedies involving our children, now is the time to raise the visibility of children and youth, address challenges, generate solutions, and formulate recommendations to respond to their needs so that we can begin the arduous work for real and long-lasting change.
As Congressman Cummings said, "We have got to do better by our children." The children of Charm City and millions of others across this great country are crying out for it.