As New Year’s Eve countdowns wound down, many people turned to the familiar ritual of taking stock of where they are now to make resolutions for what they can do better in the new year. We all measure our accomplishments and shortcomings in different ways. Some people count numbers on a scale or in a savings account. But what if we decided to take stock as a nation by measuring how we treat our children?
If we did that kind of countdown, we’d learn:
• Every second and a half during the school year a public school student receives an out-of-school suspension.
• Every 8 seconds during the school year a public high school student drops out.
• Every 32 seconds a child is born into poverty in America.
• Every 47 seconds a child is abused or neglected.
• Every 72 seconds a baby is born without health insurance.
• Every five and a half hours a child is killed by abuse or neglect.
A majority of America’s fourth and eighth grade public school students can’t read or do math at grade level, including 76 percent or more of Black and Latino students.
Millions of American children start school not ready to learn and millions more lack safe, affordable, quality child care and early childhood education.
If we were counting we’d see that millions of poor children are hungry, at risk of hunger, living in worst case housing, or are homeless in America.
And we would find a child or teen is killed by a firearm about every three hours and 15 minutes — more than seven every single day. The devastation at Sandy Hook put the media spotlight on a tragedy that strikes families in communities across America daily as a result of our nation’s shameful refusal to protect children instead of guns. In 2010 2,694 children and teens died from gun violence.
What do these numbers tell us about who we are and who we hope to be? Why do we choose to let children be the poorest age group in our rich nation and to let millions of children suffer preventable sickness, neglect, abuse, mis-education, and violence? Why do we continue to mock God’s call for justice for children and the poor and our professed ideals of freedom and justice for all?
It’s time for new resolutions backed by urgent and persistent action. In 2013, the United States celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and of the Birmingham movement. Our first African-American president will be inaugurated for a second term in a public ceremony that will take place the same day as our national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our prophet of nonviolence.
How will we honor and carry forth our long struggle towards freedom and equality? Let’s resolve not to make this another year of platitudes and remembering the dream but make this a year of action to end child poverty and violence as Dr. King called for.
Dr. King said: “The Declaration of Independence proclaimed to a world, organized politically and spiritually around the concept of the inequality of man, that the dignity of human personality was inherent in man as a living being. The Emancipation Proclamation was the offspring of the Declaration of Independence . . . Our pride and progress could be unqualified if the story might end here. But history reveals that America has been a schizophrenic personality where these two documents are concerned. On the one hand she has proudly professed the basic principles inherent in both documents. On the other hand she has sadly practiced the antithesis of these principles.” He concluded: “There is but one way to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. That is to make its declarations of freedom real; to reach back to the origins of our nation when our message of equality electrified an unfree world, and reaffirm democracy by deeds as bold and daring as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Let’s match the history of this 2013 moment with bold and daring steps to close the gap between what every child needs to grow to productive adulthood, what we know works, and what we do to ensure their healthy development. It must begin with safety from guns. If the child is safe all of us are safe.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund.