“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” This passage from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize is part of the Inscription Wall of the new memorial honoring Dr. King on the National Mall. But as we honor Dr. King’s legacy in our nation’s capital, the audacious belief that every family should be able to afford simple necessities like enough to eat is at risk in Washington, D.C. and across the country. The poor are getting poorer.
The Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, through the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, just released the Ohio’s KIDS COUNT: 2010 Data Book, an annual report that provides snapshots of the well-being of Ohio’s children. With unemployment in Ohio reaching 10.6% last year, we found thousands of Ohio children and their families pushed to the front lines of economic suffering. The overall poverty rate for Ohio’s children was 21.6% in 2009, jumping 16.8% in a single year and increasing 45.9% since 2001. The number of Ohio counties with at least 25% of children living in poverty more than doubled from 15 in 2008 to 31 in 2009.
Rural child poverty was the most common in Ohio followed by urban child poverty. But in these tough times, children in suburbs and communities that haven’t experienced significant rates of child poverty in the past are struggling too, and help and solutions are urgently needed from Ohio’s state and congressional leaders. As one mother in Cincinnati put it simply, “The welfare system today is based on work—but when there’s no work, there’s a problem.” Renuka Mayadev, CDF-Ohio’s Executive Director, points out that “Ohio’s future depends on investing in the economic security of its youngest citizens. Knowing the statistics is only the first step toward solving the problem. It’s up to all of us to put the next foot forward.”
Ohio is far from alone. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 22nd annual national KIDS COUNT Data Book shows a significant decline in economic well-being for low income children and families across the country over the last ten years. The official child poverty rate, which they note is actually “a conservative measure of economic hardship,” increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009. And they say, “Although the recession is technically over, it is clear that a large portion of America’s families continue to confront daunting challenges . . . Unemployment remains high, median household income is down, and many families have depleted their savings and other assets. As they struggle to recover, families face the reality that intergenerational economic mobility in the United States has not changed much over the past 40 years. If anything, it has declined.”
This is not what Dr. King urged. Throughout his life he spoke out against injustice in all of its forms and believed economic injustice was one of our nation’s and world’s greatest sins. He also believed we could and must work urgently to right that wrong. “Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones, and whenever injustice is around he must tell it . . . Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me, and he has anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.’…It's all right to talk about long white robes over yonder, in all of its symbolism, but ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
Dr. King delivered those words in Memphis on April 3, 1968—the night before he was assassinated. In the months leading up to his death, he was mounting a Poor People’s Campaign urging America to hear and see and “deal with the problems of the poor.” Dr. King’s vision of a new America has not yet come to pass, indeed is vanishing for the 43.6 million poor Americans including 15.5 million poor children, but he believed that as a people we would get there. But that depends on our leaders and the demands citizens place on them. Addressing increasing child poverty and parental joblessness is the very first step the Administration and Congress must take as they return to Washington and get back to business. And it must be the top priority of governors in every state—too many of whom are eager to give tax cuts to the non-needy and impose budget cuts on the neediest including our children. It’s time to say no. Preachers across the land need to speak up for poor children and against America’s vanishing dream for the next generation. It’s the only way we will begin to realize that vision and help America finally live up to its promise.