Today marks the inaugural Red Nose Day in the United States. A campaign begun in the U.K. three decades ago, Red Nose Day seeks to lift children out of poverty, making them safer and giving them hope for a brighter future. The campaign generates funds through comic relief; fundraisers are paid to wear a red nose for the day, rock crazy hair or makeup at the office, or do the chicken dance. Half of the money raised today will go to children right here in the United States, while the other half will be distributed to some of the poorest communities around the world.
It's easy to forget that childhood poverty is a devastating reality in the United States. A few years ago, in a New Yorker article entitled "Spoiled Rotten," Elizabeth Kolbert wrote: "contemporary American kids may represent the most indulged young people in the history of the world." Evidence of that claim is all around us.
Americans shell out at least 23 billion dollars a year on baby products. Some parents spend the cost of a used car on status-symbol strollers for their infants; others purchase wipes warmers and crawler knee pads to buffer their babies from even the slightest discomfort. The average child has their own cell phone by twelve years old, and many children today can't imagine a road trip without gadgets, video games and other forms of in-car entertainment. Every young athlete seems to be a winner - whether or not they actually win. College administrators complain that many freshmen have never experienced even minor failures because of their doting "helicopter" parents.
Recent news headlines suggest that some local governments are taking an equally vigilant stance toward children. Last year, the Meitiv family of Maryland became the face of so-called "free range parenting" when they were accused of neglect for allowing their elementary school aged children to walk home from a park without an adult.
Mainstream media accounts suggest that childhood in America is an idyllic, if not overindulged, experience. But not all American children are "spoiled rotten." In fact, millions are eking out an existence, suffering from hunger, neglect and abuse.
Almost a quarter of all children in this country live in families with incomes below the poverty line. Among 35 industrialized countries, the United States has the second highest child poverty rate, despite the fact that we have the largest economy in the world. Poverty threatens a child's well-being: it hinders their educational opportunities, as well as their social, emotional, and physical development. At the same time, a child is abused or neglected every 47 seconds in America, and infants and toddlers are at the greatest risk for abuse. That abuse, in turn, enhances the likelihood that a child will end up in the criminal justice system. Studies have consistently shown that childhood abuse and maltreatment increase the likelihood of substance abuse and delinquency later in life. Among those serving life without parole sentences in this country for a juvenile offense, approximately half were physically abused and nearly 80% witnessed violence in their homes.
Even if there are some spoiled children in America, there are millions in need of assistance. And when children suffer from poverty and neglect, society ultimately pays the price. So let's all don our red noses - because childhood poverty is no laughing matter.