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Daring Leap for the Future of Childhood

Rights: Marian Wright Edelman is tired of politicians taking from children to garner votes. And she's going to tell them--face to face.

May 29, 1996|KATHY LALLY | THE BALTIMORE SUN

After years of slogging, one foot in front of the other, to make life better for America's children, Marian Wright Edelman has given up on small steps.

Only a huge, daring leap can improve their steadily diminishing prospects, says Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. She plans to make that leap Saturday with a march on Washington called "Stand for Children."

Edelman is summoning hundreds of thousands of children and adults to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday to try to do for children what the 1963 march on Washington did for civil rights or what Earth Day did for the environment.

"It's about building political will," Edelman says. "This is a time to say democracy is not a spectator sport. It's not about other people's children. It's about all of us. We have tried more traditional avenues, and it's never been enough. It's time to make ourselves heard."

She wants to seize a moment in this election year to put politicians on notice that it will be politically unsafe to make life worse for children by cutting programs that benefit them.

"I knew we couldn't have another year like last year," she says, when $228 billion of cuts in family-oriented programs were proposed so politicians could offer cuts in taxes.

She wants the nation to invest in preschool programs like Head Start and medical care for children, investing in prevention instead of prison. "The fastest-growing housing program in America is prisons," she says. "We're the world's greatest incarcerator."

And she wants the march to galvanize ordinary people to do something in their own cities and neighborhoods to make life better for children.

Edelman offers an array of horrifying statistics to document how U.S. children are in trouble: 21.5% live in poverty, the highest in any industrialized country in the world; every day, three children die from abuse or neglect, six commit suicide, 13 are homicide victims and 100,000 are homeless.

Even those statistics don't convey just how bleak life is for many U.S. children, and by extension for us all, says Douglas Nelson, executive director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national foundation based in Baltimore that is dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged children.

Most people don't understand, Nelson says, the consequences for families of the economic, cultural and social changes that have taken place in the last 20 to 30 years.

Not only are enormous numbers of children poor, Nelson says, they are increasingly unable to escape that poverty as they grow to adulthood.

"As many as half the kids in our cities are at genuine risk of growing up unable to play a mainstream role in the economy and may be growing up unable to form families as we traditionally have," Nelson says.

"If we allow this large a fraction of kids to grow up unready for work and family and unable to be a stakeholder in the community, it's a potential national catastrophe. That's a reasonable conclusion. It's not melodrama."

Nelson doesn't advocate expanding the welfare system, which would only cushion the hardship of people excluded from the work force rather than finding ways to include them in it. He wants radical reform of schools and development of job opportunities. "We can and should figure out ways of inflating the value of low-skilled jobs until we can prepare people for other jobs," he says. "If someone works full time, they ought to be able to earn enough to get a three-person family near the poverty line."

He wants to strengthen the institutions that support families--child care, after-school activities, community and church programs. The Stand for Children march can help with all this, he says, by making concern for children an issue for everyone, not just professional child advocates like him and Edelman.

"I think the march will remind us of our moral obligation to these innocent kids," Nelson says. "And I hope it will take us beyond that to an understanding that doing something is in our national interest. We have to move from a sentiment to a calculation. The degree of change we need will not come out of a philanthropic imperative but out of patriotism and the national interest."

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