One in Five U.S. Children Lives in Poverty
"Children are the world's most valuable resource and its best hope for the future."
These words were spoken by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as part of an appeal to the American people to continue donating to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which supports children around the globe. But while organizations like UNICEF do play a large role in helping those in need, the government also shares that responsibility. Together, the nonprofit sector and the government must ensure that millions of children do not suffer the uncertainties of a low-income lifestyle; they must ensure that children receive adequate medical care, standard nutrition, a proper education and other necessities.
In 1965, President Johnson acted on President Kennedy's vision of ensuring quality of life for all children when he began to wage a campaign known as the "War on Poverty." Remembering the work of these presidents in their fight against poverty is especially important today as we live in a world of economic downturns, looming budget cuts, and an increasing number of people, including a staggering number of children, living below the poverty line.
The U.S. Census Bureau released the "Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010" report last week, and the findings are striking. An astounding 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2010; that's one in six people. The number of Americans living in poverty has increased since 2009 by 3 million people, bringing the 2010 total to 46.2 million people. Of this already disheartening number, 16.4 million of them are children; that's right, 22 percent of children in America, or one in five children, is living in poverty.
In addition to the number of people living in poverty, 103.6 million people are living below $44,000 in annual income for a family of four; in other words, one-third of the U.S. population is considered to be "low-income," meaning these individuals and families could be only one or two paychecks away from falling below the poverty line.
Poverty knows no divide and can affect any and all racial and ethnic groups. Nonetheless, while 12.4 percent of white children live in poverty, that number more than triples for Hispanic children (37 percent living in poverty) and African American children, with a staggering 40 percent living below the poverty line.
For children living in poverty, programs such as Head Start, CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) are essential to their development into productive and healthy members of society: Head Start focuses on comprehensive child development and early education by providing services including medical exams, proper nutrition guidance, dental and vision check-ups, and efforts to increase parental involvement. CHIP, which is funded by the federal government and administered by the states, provides health insurance to children who would otherwise be uninsured. WIC serves pregnant women, women who have recently had a child, and infants and children up to their fifth birthday who are low-income and nutritionally at risk; it provides education about proper nutrition and "screening and referrals to other health, welfare and social services."
In today's economic climate and in light of the new Census data on poverty, programs such as Head Start, CHIP and WIC are even more crucial to protecting the health and well-being of the next generation of Americans. Jewish tradition places great value on the sanctity and welfare of children. Children, like all human beings, are created in the image of God, and it is humanity's obligation to protect and nurture them to enable them to reach their fullest potential.
The newly formed Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, frequently referred to as the Congressional "super committee," has begun looking for another $1.5 trillion in savings. Many federally funded programs are going to be reviewed for possible budget cuts, including Head Start, CHIP and WIC. It is imperative that these programs are protected so that our children are protected.
Just as President Kennedy urged people to recognize the importance of children as the hope for the future, we need to urge Congress to recognize the potential in all the children that these federal programs help; we need them to safeguard these programs during the difficult budget-cutting process ahead.
Molly Benoit is a 2011-2012 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant.