Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness... Do We Still Believe?

07/02/2012 02:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012
  • Jaime Hanks Managing Director of CHILDREN AT RISK North Texas

This op-ed was written in association with The Op Ed Project

More than 200 years ago, our country was founded on the belief that we are all endowed "with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." As we celebrate July 4th, arguably one of the most formative and tremendous days in our nation's history, I wonder if those values are still ingrained in our actions and society today.

In Texas, 1 in 5 children live in poverty. That's 1,764,516 children total, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Research shows that growing up in poverty gives children a poor start in life: they are less likely to have access to health care, are six times more likely to live in homes with low food security, and have fewer safe outdoor spaces to play in. An estimated half a trillion dollars are lost each year across the nation due to the lower productivity, higher crime, and poorer health that result from growing up in poverty.

Education has proven to be the best way to pull children out of the life cycle of poverty. Yet today, only 68 percent of Texans graduate from high school, and far less graduate with an advanced degree. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 17 percent of Texans graduate with a Bachelor's degree and 6.3 percent graduate with an Associate degree. Every child should be given the tools or opportunities to properly embark upon the pursuit of happiness that is their birthright; too many Texan children are not.

But, there is hope. All over the state and the country, programs exist to serve our children today and prepare them for a lifetime of success. Schools are implementing universal school breakfast programs to provide low-income students with the most important meal of the day to ensure they can stay focused on learning and not empty stomachs. Schools across the nation are implementing longer school days and years to provide greater time on task to provide children with the time they need to increase their learning and technology is enabling students to receive additional quality instruction outside of the classroom. Nonprofits, faith organizations, and corporations are coming together to jointly better serve the needs of our children.

But to ensure our children -- who are after all our future leaders -- can exercise the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, we must, as a nation/state take on these issues as our own.

As managing director of Children at Risk North Texas, I'm often told, "Well, that's not my problem because I don't have children," or "It's a parent's responsibility to provide for their children, not mine." Parenting is an enormous responsibility, and a parent is one of the most influential mentors in a child's life. But the rest of us cannot sit back and expect that parents living in a neighborhood without access to grocery stores or quality public schools can pull their family out of the cycle of poverty alone. The Children's Defense Fund's Child Poverty in America report highlights that most poor children have working parents -- seven out of 10 poor children are in working families where someone works full- or part-time for at least part of the year. If families are failing to break that cycle alone, it's not for lack of trying.

Our nation is great in so many ways. But we are not great because former leaders turned away from the problems in their communities; we are great because they banded together to build a better future for all children and citizens. Children are one-third of our population. They are our future.

On this July 4th, as we prepare for fireworks, barbeques, and celebrations, let's all stop and ask ourselves: how we can help improve the future of our communities and our great nation? There are so many answers: volunteer with a local nonprofit, mentor a child, vote for public officials that make children's needs a priority, or donate to a cause that inspires you to ensure that our children are given the tools they need to succeed.

America is a nation of strivers and survivors. Our history is full of rugged individualists and bootstrap pullers who have worked hard and sacrificed to make better lives for themselves. Life throws us all lemons, but if you don't have the tools or resources available -- like sugar and water or education and basic needs met -- you can't turn them in to lemonade, no matter how hard you try.