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California’s chance to lead for poor children

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 6/11/2018, 9:01 p.m.
When I was a young civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi, I was called in ...

Children’s Defense Fund

When I was a young civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi, I was called in 1967 to testify before Congress about the embattled Head Start program in Mississippi that was serving thousands of children after the state turned its federal funding down and community groups exercised their option to apply. But after defending the Child Development Group of Mississippi overseeing Head Start, for which I served as counsel, I added my urgent concern about the deep poverty and high levels of hunger in Mississippi. I asked the Senators to come see the hungry children and families with no income.

A delegation of U.S. Senators, including Robert F. Kennedy, came to Jackson, Mississippi, to hold hearings about the Head Start and War on Poverty programs and I testified again and asked them again to visit children and families in the Mississippi Delta so they could see for themselves the very hungry poor including children in our very rich nation. Senators Kennedy and Joseph Clark agreed to do so and we visited homes – many of them shacks with dirt floors and empty cupboards – and saw a level of hunger many people did not believe could exist in America. We saw listless young children with bloated bellies and families with no income who could not afford even the $2 cost to buy food stamps, which had replaced free food commodities.

What Kennedy experienced there profoundly moved him and he returned to Washington and went the very next day to see U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman to urge immediate relief for desperately poor and hungry children and families. Kennedy’s passionate leadership and commitment echoed my frustration at the foot dragging of the federal government in getting food to hungry Mississippi children and helped spark the Poor People’s Campaign launched by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that began 50 years ago this month. Kennedy told me to tell King to bring the poor to Washington. Although the assassinations of King and Kennedy dampened the campaign, it set in motion a series of expansions of the federal food safety net programs that continue to provide an indispensable lifeline for millions of children and families today.

Although these nutrition and other federal programs have helped reduce child poverty as we saw it in Mississippi 50 years ago, the shameful truth is that pangs of hunger and the pain of deprivation remain, not just in the Mississippi Delta but hidden in the shadows all across our nation. Despite the abundance of many in our very wealthy nation many parents face the harsh choice between paying the rent or buying a bag of groceries at the end of the month.

It is a national moral disgrace that children remain the poorest age group in the United States. It also is unnecessary, costly and the greatest threat I believe to our future national, economic and military security and soul. Nearly 1 in 5 children was poor in 2016 – more than 13.2 million children. More than 6 million of them lived in deep poverty at less than half the poverty level, below $9,553 a year or $796 a month for a family of three for all expenses, including housing, transportation, food, clothing, health and other basic necessities. It remains devastatingly clear that child poverty and racial inequality are inextricably linked with Black, Native American and Latino children far more likely to experience deep poverty than White children.