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Irwin Redlener, M.D.

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Barack Obama and America's Children: Can a Tragedy Refocus a Nation's Priorities?

Posted: 01/11/2013 4:49 pm

The children of Newtown are back at school. The media storm over the tragedy is, not surprisingly, fading into the background as headlines now focus on budget crises and the politics of presidential appointments. Although the lives of the families in that once quiet Connecticut community have been irrevocably altered, the acute shock and horror of an elementary school massacre is already waning, slowly evolving into a renewed battle to bring rationality into the relationship between Americans and their guns.

Still, 28 deaths, 20 of them 6-year-olds, cannot be (and should not be) obliterated from the public consciousness. We were all horrified, and, whether we recognize it or not, we are all scarred by the sheer insanity of this catastrophe where little kids were deliberately -- and anonymously -- killed in their classroom. Maybe the tide of public revulsion will overwhelm the gun manufacturers and gun extremists who have, until now, been wildly successful as advocates for Bushmasters and high-capacity ammo magazines.

And there may be some sort of silver lining in this whole terrible affair.

President Obama was deeply and clearly affected by the Sandy Hook disaster. He seems determined not to let us forget the bigger lessons about our obligation to nurture and protect kids; not just protect them from crazed men with assault rifles, but also protect them from the corrosive consequences of poverty, and make sure they have the resources to grow up healthy and ready to learn; ready to take their places as productive citizens. In his memorial remarks at Newtown, the president articulated just what is at stake: "This is our first task -- caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged."

President Obama frames this calamity not just as an isolated incidence of unfathomable violence -- or even as one of a series of terrible mass slayings in recent years. Rather, he asks us to view the senseless dousing of young lives as symbolic of a dire societal reality we have accepted for far too long.

Yes, the availability of assault weapons and lax gun control laws certainly need to be addressed. It's only common sense that we must make it as difficult as possible for a disturbed individual to acquire what are essentially weapons of mass destruction. And to demonstrate how seriously the president takes this issue, Vice President Joe Biden was selected to lead this new and highly visible effort to limit possession of combat weapons in the U.S. But, as the president suggested in his remarks at the memorial, random gun violence is just part of the larger set of challenges facing America's children.

Today, in America, more than one in five children live in poverty.

A report by the UNICEF Innocenti Research Center shows that of 35 economically advanced countries, the United States had the second highest rate of child poverty -- nearly three times higher than France and four times higher than Finland.

This statistic, alone, should be the equivalent of gunshots sounding on the playground and in the lunchroom. Here in the world's richest nation -- a republic that aspires to lead the world in democratic reforms, in economic development, in technological innovation -- a generation is emerging crippled by chronic poverty.

Every day in America, 17 million young people struggle with getting adequate nutrition and access to essential preventive medical care. And this condition has persisted for decades in the U.S.

The trajectory is strikingly straightforward, unfortunately. Poverty leads to hardship and failure. When children are hungry, sleepy from a night spent fighting untreated asthma, or hobbled by symptoms of undiagnosed illnesses, they are less likely to do well in school. And faltering in school can lead to a downward spiral from which they may never recover. That is a recurrent scenario for millions of children and that bodes poorly for the nation's future.

The president asked, "Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?"

The answer, of course, is no. Whether children are inexcusably exposed to gun violence or chronically hungry or unable to access an early childhood education center, they are not being given a fair chance to succeed in America. And that, it seems, is not OK with the president.

I am encouraged by the call to action that President Obama raised in Newtown. But I hope to hear him talk more about poverty and the welfare of America's children going forward. His upcoming State of the Union address would be an excellent place to continue the conversation.

As he said, "We come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we're counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we're all parents; that they're all our children." I couldn't agree more.

 

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