A statue of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass is finally on display in the United States Capitol. It is only the fourth statue of an African American in a building that is supposed to be a living shrine to our democracy. A former slave, during the 19th century, Douglass became a fierce and formidable opponent of slavery and a supporter of women’s suffrage.
He was also one of the most famous advocacy journalists in U.S. history, a critical piece of his identity that’s rarely mentioned by those who celebrate his contributions to our nation. Indeed, I was disappointed last fall when my journalism major students (college juniors and seniors) weren’t quite sure who he was. They guessed he was a “civil rights leader” but they didn’t know his newspaper was called The North Star.
I, too, first encountered Douglass in college, during an “Afro-American” literature class. We read his biography/memoir “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” It was a life-changing experience. Douglass soon became a personal hero. Every Fourth of July, I listen with pride to the recitation of the Declaration of Independence on NPR’s Morning Edition, then switch over to Pacifica Radio hoping to catch a dramatic reading of Douglass’ “The Meaning of July 4th for the Negro.”
More recently I have discovered a quote of Douglass’ that resonates with me and my work at JCCF: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Ain’t it the truth?
I thought of that quote as I read two documents this week: The 2013 KIDS COUNT Data Book, the annual report compiled by JCCF’s primary funder, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and “Giving Kids a Fair Chance,” by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman.
KIDS COUNT compiles and analyzes statistics about the well-being of children in the U.S. including data about economics, health, education and family/community. It reveals tremendous variation based on whether you are born in New Hampshire (ranked No.1) or New Mexico (No. 50), or whether your parents are white or African American. How can that be acceptable in a country that espouses equality? What would Frederick Douglass say?
As I listen to public radio in the evenings, I often hear Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal “do the numbers,” reporting the fluctuations on Wall Street. What if we took a daily pulse of child well-being? What if our culture were as obsessed with making sure all children were nurtured and healthy and educated and safe, as we are with the rise and fall of stocks? The Marketplace "Wealth and Poverty Desk" explores the growing economic inequality in America. I often wonder if Fortune 500 types are even tuned in.
According to KIDS COUNT, the child poverty rate increased to 23 percent in 2011 and the poverty rate for kids under the age of three is 26 percent. That means a quarter of all toddlers and infants in these United States are living below the poverty line. And we know that said poverty line is artificially low, so even more children are living close to the edge, in families that are struggling to feed them with sequester-threatened food stamps (SNAP), and keep a roof over their heads with fragile federal housing supports. What does the Dow Jones Industrial Average have to say about that?
So, the news from KIDS COUNT, of course, is not 100 percent bad, and that’s a good thing. We all need a dose of good news and here it is, comparing data from 2005 and 2011:
The teen birth rate is at a record low.
There’s been a 20 percent decline in the rate of high school students not graduating.
The percentage of children without health insurance decreased by 30 percent.
If these trends continue, we can expect to see a spike in the numbers of healthy, high school graduates who do not have children. Hooray for progress.
It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
Economist James Heckman provides, in part, an answer to my call for economics as if children mattered. His new book, “Giving Kids a Fair Chance,” draws on the latest brain development research and various studies of successful interventions to argue that investing heavily in children’s first five years of life is not only the right thing to do, it’s the economically smart move.
“The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality,” he writes in the beginning of his essay. Heckman argues that children born in disadvantaged environments are too often destined to have poor health, low skills, personal troubles and worse. He posits that the “scarce resource is love and parenting, not money.” He believes in predistribution, not redistribution. That means frontloading resources in the earliest years of life, to give poor parents the knowledge and support they need to raise kids who will thrive. The Nobel Laureate says home visiting, high quality preschools and other strategies are the best chance for the country to grow its human resources, which are now being wasted away in a world of drugs, prisons and poverty.
He makes a compelling case. But it’s also worth reading the spirited response to his manifesto included in the slim volume, from people as diverse as Charles Murray (The Bell Curve) and Geoffrey Canada (Harlem Children’s Zone).
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has landed on a few very important bases. They promote evidence-based programs, which means supporting efforts that are proven, not just well-intentioned good ideas in the abstract. They promote multigenerational interventions, which means helping kids by helping their parents. And they embrace greater attention to the early years, when brains are growing, vocabulary is exploding, when loving attention can create a safe world for children and when traumatic experiences like abuse and neglect, hunger and violence, can compromise healthy development and prospects for a good life.
When Frederick Douglass pushed for an end to slavery, for full equality for all people of color and all women, he could envision a country that lived up to its ideals. If he were alive today, what would he think about the child poverty rate in our wealthy, industrialized nation? What would he say about the educational and economic prospects of children of color? What would he say about the glorification and explosion of billionaires, while the minimum wage is not enough to sustain a family?
As you dig in to this year’s KIDS COUNT Data Book, I hope you will hear the booming voice of orator Frederick Douglass and remember his prophetic words:
It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.