Americans committed to keep moving forward turned out in record numbers to vote in the battleground states. But we won’t be able to go forward until Congress sits down and makes the hard decisions to create a just budget that invests in children, our poorest group of Americans, and creates jobs for their struggling parents while making sure those who have benefited from huge tax cuts pull their weight. Exit polls have made clear that the majority of Americans—Democrats, Independents, and many Republicans alike—agree that the richest Americans and corporations need to pay their fair share.
For all those who voted, our work and duty is not done. We need to make sure to tell the President and Congress to “be very careful what you cut” and make our voices heard now and for as long as necessary. Children, the poor and the middle class cannot afford more devastating cuts and instability as they continue to struggle against hunger, homelessness, joblessness, and loss of summer school and regular school days as a result of this long economic downturn.
To move forward, America’s security and prosperity depend on our children’s ability to drive the economy of the future. If a majority of them cannot read and compute at grade level in fourth, eighth and 12th grade, we will not have a strong economy. The leaders now facing crucial budget decisions must craft budget solutions that will protect the already porous safety nets on which so many children and families rely, and invest in the health, early childhood development and education of our children.
To achieve long term growth for America, any solution must: (1) protect investments serving children and low income families; (2) invest in children which will create desperately needed jobs; and (3) ensure that the wealthiest Americans and corporations pay their fair share.
The fundamental principle of protecting children and other vulnerable populations has been a cornerstone of deficit reduction since the bipartisan Balanced Budget Act of 1985. Every automatic budget cut mechanism of the past quarter century has exempted core low-income assistance programs from any cuts triggered when budget targets or fiscal restraint rules were missed or violated.
The American people still strongly support this principle. Recent polling conducted by the Pew Research Center showed almost 60 percent of Americans oppose cutting spending for anti-poverty programs. A Public Opinion Strategies poll showed even larger numbers of likely voters oppose cuts to Medicaid (73 percent) or education programs (75 percent).
While unwise cuts cost us more in the long run, economists agree that investing in children promotes economic growth. For example, investments in education that raise high school graduation rates have been shown to yield a public benefit of $209,000 per student in higher government revenues and lower government spending, and an economic benefit to the public purse that is 2.5 times greater than the costs.
With more than 16.1 million children in America – more than one in five of all children and more than one in three children of color – living in poverty, special efforts must be made to address the needs of these most vulnerable among us. Poor children lag behind their peers in many ways beyond income: they are less healthy, trail in emotional and intellectual development, are less likely to graduate from high school and to find steady work as adults, and are more likely to head poor families. Every year we keep these millions of children in poverty costs our nation at least half a trillion dollars in lost productivity, poorer health, and increased crime.
Be careful what you cut. If our children are not ready for tomorrow, neither is America.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.