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Building a movement for all children

The 1990s boomed -- 18 million new jobs in the final six years, a 44 percent drop in welfare caseloads, 7.8 million new homeowners, and new millionaires almost too numerous to count.

The 2000s reveal some sobering realities -- 11 million children with no health insurance, 12 million children not getting enough to eat, one child in six living in poverty and three-quarters of those in working families.

Millions of children live in “worst case” families when it comes to housing needs: the 5.4 million households that pay more than half their income for accommodations. Almost 8,000 children a day are reported at risk for abuse or neglect, and 10 a day are killed by gunfire. Education? Need we ask? The richest school districts spend 56 percent more per student than do the poorest districts.

Veteran civil rights and child activist Marian Wright Edelman, Children’s Defense Fund founder, launched a new legislative initiative May 23 (see story, page 8) supported by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., “that combines the best proposals and policy initiatives into a single, comprehensive measure” that serves as an agenda for America’s children.

Edelman -- currently riding the commencement circuit with honors and speeches at colleges as varied as the University of Oklahoma, Tulane, the University of Ohio, West Virginia and Berea College in Kentucky -- doesn’t just propose. She probes.

She asks the questions for which there have been no answers in more than two decades. How do we build the spiritual and civic will to achieve what all children need for all children? How do we build a broad-based movement that has the transforming power of the civil rights, anti-war and environmental movements of the 1960s and ’70s?

How do we evoke in the American people the same ingrained national commitment for children that exists to protect elderly Americans from poverty, hunger and social isolation? How do we move children’s needs to the top of the national agenda, regardless of who is elected, and mobilize a critical mass of Americans to demand action from policymakers? How do we present a bold, visionary and comprehensive agenda that covers all the areas that need to be addressed for children, rather than a piecemeal, fragmented series of incremental steps that do not resonate beyond the Beltway, the state capitols or policy analysts? How do we bring together disparate child advocates and service providers with powerful mainstream networks -- faith, women, parents and grandparents, youth, health professionals -- to support, strengthen and achieve an inspiring big vision to protect the whole child and family?

Edelman’s answers are the legislation she proposes, a call for public demonstrations, a compelling moral and political call to action, and “making a lot of noise.”

“And,” she assures us, “we’re going to make a lot of noise.”

Edelman said she’s using the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. “He didn’t care anything about God or justice, but the widow kept worrying him to death, saying, ‘Give me justice.’ She wore him down.”

It’s not just widows Edelman is after. She’s been looking at women’s witness in Chile and South Africa and elsewhere, and said that part of the legislative push will be the launching of a “new, moral witness of women.”

Edelman knows the odds against igniting nationwide moral indignation, against rallying the students who need to be challenged, against getting the grandmas (she’s about to become one) and granddads enlivened behind the issues of child and grandchild poverty.

What she doesn’t know is how to stop trying.

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001