In a powerful inaugural speech last month, President Obama highlighted our nation’s children, asking all Americans to cherish, care for, and protect our younger generation.
By using his bully pulpit to address the plight and vulnerabilities of America’s children, the president has focused a spotlight on an issue that should be a national priority, but that has been neglected for far too long. As a doctor who has worked for the past quarter century to help improve the lives of kids in poverty, I welcome it. But in order to truly change the prospects of disadvantaged children, we need more than just rhetoric—we need a coordinated and focused national initiative to fight child poverty.
In 1987, singer/songwriter Paul Simon and I co-founded the Children’s Health Fund to help poor and homeless children get access to the essential medical services they need to grow up healthy, to succeed in school, and to become productive members of our society. But in the 25 years since we first began this work, we have seen very little overall improvement in the status of poor children in the U.S. As we point out in a recent study, “Still in Peril,” rates of child poverty, homelessness, and a number of specific health indicators have stagnated or worsened over the past quarter century.
Today, America’s impoverished children number nearly 17 million—a population the size of the Netherlands. In other words, we have what amounts to an entire nation of poor children living within our borders. One-fifth of America’s children regularly go to bed hungry and some 1.6 million children are considered homeless.
Over the years, as Children’s Health Fund doctors and nurses have provided care to hundreds of thousands of needy kids, we have come to understand the complex range of obstacles impeding America’s poor children from living healthy, productive lives. In addition to inadequate healthcare, these children also experience dangerous communities, inferior schools, a lack of housing and food, mental and emotional health problems, and transportation impediments, all of which have combined to make it virtually impossible for impoverished children to make a better life for themselves.
It has become abundantly clear to us that the hodgepodge of disjointed government policies and programs has been insufficient to turn the tide. Clearly, if we are ever to move the needle on child poverty, this matrix of problems needs to be addressed by a sustained, coordinated, and focused national initiative.
For the past several months, I have been working with a coalition of leading child advocates to urge the White House to speak out and act on the issue of pervasive child poverty in the U.S. Now, thankfully, the president has opened the door to such an effort with calls to action that must not be ignored.
In the upcoming months, President Obama will have a number of opportunities to address child poverty in ways that could create real change. The White House recently announced that the president’s campaign team will transition into a new entity, Organizing for Action, which will use public engagement to help accomplish the president’s second term agenda. With the help of this new organization, the president can make impoverished children a high priority, ensuring they will stay on top of his agenda.
The president also has a unique opportunity to address child poverty in the State of the Union speech. And we hope that President Obama will go beyond just raising awareness of our kids in need. We believe the time is now for President Obama to call for a new National Commission on Children. Action could begin with a White House conference at which parents and health and policy experts could develop a proposal for eradicating poverty amongst our nation’s children.
During these tough economic times, many Americans rightfully worry about leaving behind significant debt that will fall onto their children and grandchildren. But if we only focus on the long term, we fail to recognize the short-term consequences of allowing another generation of children to grow up in poverty, without the resources and education needed to succeed later in life.
With the president’s call to action, the fight against child poverty has finally achieved the national attention it deserves. But talk is not enough, and rhetoric will not keep these children on the national agenda. We must establish a national initiative to help our most vulnerable children, and, until we do, they risk falling out of the spotlight.
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Dr. Irwin Redlener is professor of clinical public health and pediatrics at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, director of Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and co-founder of Children’s Health Fund.
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