February 15

COMMENTARY: When did children become such a low priority?

Daisy Jenkins

In a recent conversation about declining student performance, a frustrated and passionate elementary school teacher broke into tears as she told me, “I have far too many kids who show up each day with empty stomachs. My heart is heavy for these children. We have to fill their stomachs before we can reach their minds.”

We, the people of the United States of America, despite our relentless effort to maintain a more perfect union, failed to do so in 2013, and we will falter again in 2014 if we continue to neglect the health and welfare of our children.

Our children live in poverty. The Children’s Defense Fund reports that there more than 16.1 million American children (nearly one-quarter) living in poverty. Many are in working-class families, and a disproportionate number are black and Latino. A study published in 2013 by the Southern Education Foundation revealed that 48 percent of all public school children come from homes with incomes low enough to qualify them for free or reduced lunches.

Our children are being killed. One hundred and ninety-four children were shot and killed in America in 2013, according to Mother Jones. In Chicago alone, 58 teenagers and children were killed in a six-month period. A Children’s Defense Fund Study, “Protect Children, Not Guns 2013,” found that America’s rate of child-shooting deaths is four times higher than Canada’s and 65 times higher than Britain’s. Equally inconceivable is that the number of children and teens killed by guns in one year would fill 134 classrooms of 20 students each.

Our children are exploited. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that 750-1,500 juveniles are at risk for trafficking in a single state each year. A 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation study showed statistics that every two minutes a child in our great nation is trafficked for sexual exploitation. Ark of Hope for Children statistics estimate that more than 300,000 American children are at risk for commercial sex trafficking annually.

Where’s the public outcry?

Are we so preoccupied with political gridlock over health care reform or our national thirst for consumerism and entertainment that we fail to comprehend the devastation facing America’s children?

We have politicians who fight against health care coverage and assistance to children living in poverty. We have parents who neglect their primary responsibility to nurture and care for their children. We have media that have spent more time spotlighting a pop star’s twerking than black children being murdered in Chicago. We have a cacophony of voices in American religious institutions railing against homosexuality and gay marriage, but muted sounds about the plight of our children. When did our children become such a low priority?

There are those who disagree that America’s children in need are a national issue. Some point to single heads of households on public assistance or teens having babies as the primary cause of the crisis among our children; they say let the liberals and others who give them handouts deal with the problem. Others, like Fox host Bill O’Reilly, blame African-American girls for the challenges black children face and tell them to stop having babies, which is like blaming gloating Republican leaders for Healthcare.gov glitches.

Instead of ignoring the problem because we feel faultless, let’s make a commitment to help America’s poor children and children at risk.

There are many long-term strategies and solutions; however, short-term solutions are just waiting for our active engagement. Here are five of them.

• As responsible citizens, we must give our time, money and talents to local and national organizations that advocate for and support children in need, such as Save the Children, United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Youth on their Own, food banks and others.

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