Children and Poverty
Marian Wright Edelman

"Here we have poverty killing children, more slowly, but just as surely as guns, in a nation that has been blessed with a nine-trillion-dollar economy."


Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), the foremost children’s advocacy organization in the United States, is one of the great inspirational leaders of our time. Edelman grew up in a closely knit, deeply religious family, in a small, racially segregated southern town. After graduating from Spelman College, where she joined civil rights protests, she went on to Yale Law School, and became the first black woman ever admitted to the Mississippi bar. She directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education office in Jackson, Mississippi, where she and coworkers were regularly harassed, intimidated, and threatened for their civil rights work. In 1968, Edelman was a major force behind the Poor People’s March, the last great campaign of Martin Luther King, Jr., when tens of thousands of Americans descended on Washington, D.C., demanding respect for their rights. Soon after, Edelman founded CDF, whose mission, "to leave no child behind, and to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start, and a moral start in life," reflects her tough-minded idealism. Under Edelman’s direction, CDF provides an effective voice for poor and minority children and those with disabilities. CDF researches and disseminates information on legislation affecting the lives of children, and provides support and technical assistance to a network of state and local child advocates. A best-selling author many times over, a mother, wife, lawyer, lecturer, and a political strategist on behalf of the poor, Edelman’s capacity to transform rage into courage and action has made her a central figure in the quest for justice for the dispossessed in America over the last four decades. Hers is ultimately a wake-up call, imploring us to find our soul and save our nation. In 2000 she earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. 


It must be hard to be a poor child in America, hard, when so many have so much, to have little and to know it. When I was growing up in the South, without television, we didn’t have the sense that one had to have all these things that our consumer and excessively materialistic society tells us we need. People didn’t see poverty as something that set them apart. To be poor today, to be unable to get the basic necessities of life, and then to have the judgment about who you are as a person be based on material wealth, is much more difficult. Most of our measures of success have become external.

It is absolutely obscene that we are the sole remaining superpower, number one in military expenditures, military exports, military budget, first in health technology, first in billionaires and millionaires, yet we let our children be the poorest group of Americans. We have this booming economy and budget surplus, but there are 13.5 million poor children. All the industrialized countries protect their children against preventable diseases and sickness better than we do. Over 11 million children in this country are uninsured. It’s shameful that we alone among wealthy, industrialized nations don’t see that our children get a healthy start. We have much higher rates of infant mortality and low-birth-weight babies than our industrialized counterparts. We lag in preparing our children in science, math, and reading compared to many of our competitor industrialized countries that they are going to be up against in the new global village. And we lag the world most shamefully in protecting our children against violence. American children fifteen and under are twelve times more likely to die from gun violence than children in twenty-five other industrialized countries combined.

The fact that we spend more of our resources on military expenditures is not disconnected from the obsession we have with, and the glorification of, violence in our culture. On the cusp of a new era, we have some very fundamental decisions to make about who we are. We calculated how many Americans have killed themselves or other people in our own nation between 1968 and 1997. The total is 1.4 million. That is more than all the American battle casualties in all the wars in which we participated in this century. Between 1979 and 1997, nearly 80,000 children were killed by guns, far more than we lost in battle casualties in Vietnam. If you look at the over 200 million guns in circulation and how easily accessible they are to children and criminals, it’s amazing to me that Littleton, Colorados don’t happen more often. My recollection of that figure is that about 920,000 people have been killed by guns. And if you look at the 400,000 plus gun suicides done in this period, 92 percent of those were white, and of the homicides, about half were black and half were white. But this slaughter, the presence of guns, and the worship and tolerance of violence as power is something we are going to have to confront.

Here we are on the cusp of a new millennium. God has blessed us with more riches than we know what to do with, yet we let millions of our children go hungry, without shelter, and without other basic necessities of life. Here we are blessed with the best health technology, yet we have places where children’s immunization rates fall behind those of some developing nations, and eleven million children are without health coverage. The Children’s Defense Fund mounted a campaign in New York City where the preschool immunization rate has risen from 52 percent to 80 percent. We are trying to get it to 90. As a nation, we’ve got the means to prevent child gun deaths and to end child poverty and preventable diseases, but we haven’t got the will. Here we have poverty killing children, more slowly, but just as surely as guns, in a nation that has been blessed with a nine-trillion-dollar economy. So I hope that we will find a way to redefine what we view as progress. There is much to do. We addict our children to consumption and tell them you have to have the latest mate-rial things in order to be viewed as somebody, yet we don’t provide the education and training for them to get the jobs to get those things legally. We’ve also told rich kids that they need all those things, and they’re finding that their appetites aren’t really satisfied. So we have a spiritual poverty problem that is going to have to be confronted in a culture that treats children as consumers rather than as developing human beings in need of protection. That is probably the central issue we have to work on.

We lose a classroom full of children every two days. A quiet Littleton almost every day, in which nearly twelve children are killed by gunfire. But you know, it’s dispersed and many of them aren’t white so nobody pays attention. The attention to Littleton reminds one of the project in 1964 when middle-class white youths came to Mississippi to help black adults register to vote. The nation was shocked when two white youths were killed along with one black youth and they were exposed to the dangers which blacks faced. It was a wake-up call. A bunch of white youths were shot at school in a suburb in Colorado, where most of the violence does not occur. Most of the violence occurs at home, and in the streets, and is perpetrated by people who know each other.

To be talking about the President’s proposal for a $1.5 trillion increase in this post—Cold War era to protect children against outside enemies, when they are being killed like fleas here at home, while they struggle to read and get ready for school, is obscene. Nothing short of a powerful movement is going to work and help change these wrongheaded priorities.

Well, the military has been very smart. They spread their bases and weapons production in every state, like the B-2 bomber, where they put a piece of construction in almost every congressional district. And so it’s all about political fat and jobs in the local district and they’re having a very hard time closing the bases. Everybody has their own favorite weapon systems. And so it is extremely difficult to change fundamental priorities. We certainly know how to give good prenatal care, and immunize children, and prevent child neglect, and provide them with health insurance. But we will succeed in protecting children only if there is a strong counterforce.

Race plays a big role in lots of complicated ways. It has been the tradition for powerful southerners to use race as a way of dividing the poor white and black citizens. Even though there are more poor white children and families who are struggling, more poor whites who are hungry, and more poor whites without health insurance, in their own minds, they have had poverty defined as something that is about "those other people"—black people and brown people. Many powerful, wealthy interests, whether they are big farmers or political operators, sought to maintain control and power by keeping folks divided, and making poor whites feel that somehow they were much better because of that white skin. And so there was always an economic underpinning to racism that in many ways continues, and that is very sad. The issues of children, race, and poverty are intertwined.

One of the messages that we have to set forth is that most poor people today are working. Seventy percent of poor children live in a working family that is struggling to make ends meet. So if we really don’t believe in welfare, why don’t we make sure there is health care and child care and transportation available for working families. And we’ll see what kind of debate we have, particularly in this era of budget surplus, about why many states are not really rushing to prepare people for work. That’s going to be a real challenge. But the racial issue, and the fact that most poor people are white and work, is a hard one in the media and every place else. We have made a conscious effort over the last twenty-five years to try to redefine the face of the poor and hurting child. Black and brown children have a disproportionate chance of being poor and being at risk of all the worst things. Still, in numbers, there are more poor whites. We constantly try to say that the majority of children who are affected are white, and we always try to get white welfare recipients to testify so that the congresspeople realize this can happen to somebody they identify with. But there is such a long history of stereotyping that is constantly reinforced by the media, it is very difficult not to have people constantly put a black face on poverty. Being black, being black male and black female, makes it much harder to beat the odds. Ninety percent of our poor, brown, black, disabled, and immigrant children are in public schools and so many people really don’t think they can learn. They think it’s pouring good money into bad vessels. And there are few school systems in America where all children are expected to learn and are supported in learning.

As a result, the children who need the most get the least. They get the poorest schools, the poorest teachers, the poorest labs, the poorest books, and that’s racism. And racism imprisons them in neighborhoods that have been red-lined. You see the same thing in the misapplication of the criminal justice system. And so if you go from a black and poor child’s life in the beginning, they begin with two strikes against them. Although we have made great progress, it is still harder to be both poor and black. And if you look at life expectancy, or poverty, or violence, blacks are disproportionately victimized. We once did a sheet showing if you are a black male in America, you are far more likely to be killed than people in many other countries. We couldn’t get it all on one page. We just folded it out to compare it with violence and death rates in other countries. So race is still a real problem. Black parents who have had black sons understand that their skin is the magnet for racial profiling, police assaults, and for just walking down the street. We know we have not solved the problem of race in America.

I was blessed to have been challenged to do something that’s worth living and dying for, and to have a life that’s never lacked purpose. And I have been blessed with extraordinary role models throughout, starting with my parents. There is a lot of discussion about mentoring. I had the great women of Mississippi as my mentors. I was a lawyer by the time I went back to Mississippi. One case I worked on involved an immensely courageous black woman, Mrs. Mae Bertha Carter, the first school desegregation plaintiff in Sunflower County. She wanted her eight younger children not to have to go into the cotton fields like her older kids. She described what it felt like the first day the white school bus came and she saw those kids go off to the formerly white school and how every afternoon she’d wait and count them all as they came in. She said they would share the horrors that would go on during the day, and she would just pray all the time. They got evicted, they got shot at, they had no credit. And we finally used her case to throw out freedom of choice in Mississippi. When I hear educational choice today, I remember so-called freedom of choice in earlier days. I have such a strong commitment to a strong public school education for every child. I never feel I am half as good as those incredible, ordinary people who, day in and day out, withstood beatings, assaults, and torments without bitterness and with a transcendent faith. I don’t think I got a child out of jail who hadn’t been beaten or worse. Extraordinary daily courage by extraordinary people who had grit made me feel I had a pretty easy life.

The first time I walked into a federal court in Mississippi, there were all these white male lawyers sitting around a table, and not a single one would speak or shake hands. I knew who I was and I had a job to do, but there were times when I was absolutely terrified. I happened to have been in Mississippi the first day that police dogs were brought out against civil rights demonstrators. I was trying hard not to get arrested because I knew my ability to get into the Mississippi bar was at stake. I watched in terror and awe as Bob Moses and Jim Forman and others including old people were attacked and scattered by these dogs. But Bob didn’t move. To watch their courage on a daily basis just gives you enough to talk about to yourself and to think, "What are you complaining about?"

I am also clear that if we do not save our children, we are not going to be able to save ourselves. I cannot believe that God gave us all of these riches, and we would fail to take care of the most vulnerable among us. Taylor Branch said that never before in history have school children been the decisive factor in the transformation of a nation. We often forget that it was children who had to go through the mobs and weather the violence in Birmingham and Selma; children who were herded into the cattle cars and jails in Jackson. Their parents were terrified, but their children were the frontline soldiers. Look at the sacrifices of those four girls blown asunder in Birmingham. I was blessed by the opportunity that Dr. King and the Movement provided to feel empowered as a young person, and by how absolutely ready and prepared we were to die and to do whatever was necessary.

Commitment is both a gift of God and the luck of circumstance. I grew up in a family that really did believe in the graciousness of God. Mrs. Mae Bertha Carter said it very eloquently when she said, "God has a good purpose for all of us. And so God builds in those strengths to do what you have to do." And I think she was echoing Kierkegaard who said that everybody needs to open up the envelope of their soul and get their orders from inside of you. And nobody ever said that it was going to be easy. But you have to try.

Courage is just hanging in there when you get scared to death. One of the things that I remember about Dr. King is how as a young person he could always look scared to death. Look at his face in many of his pictures, he is depressed. He often did not know what he was going to do next. I remember him saying how terrified he was of the police dogs in the back of the car when he was being taken out to rural Georgia after being arrested. And in my little college diary, the first time I met him, I must have written down half of the speech he gave, about how you don’t have to see the whole stairway to take the first step. You can be scared but shouldn’t let it paralyze you. And he used to say over and over again, "If you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl, if you can’t crawl, just keep moving." That reflects courage. There comes a point in life when you look around and decide that this is not what life’s about. It is not what God meant for you. And you have to change things. And if that means dying, that’s fine. But it is not living. Otis Moss used an analogy recently that the worst thing to happen to a bird is not to kill it, it’s to clip its wings, to clip it’s tongue. Many people were terrified in the civil rights days but terror is a part of living in an unjust system. I felt that when I went to Crossroads, the Cape Town camp out in South Africa. When I saw those young people, I saw myself thirty years earlier, and I knew they would just not stop. That’s courage—acting despite it all.