Congress Must Act to Rescue Children Living in Poverty

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Congress Must Act to Rescue Children Living in Poverty

"It is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need." So wrote Paul to the Corinthians when they had lost their enthusiasm for giving money to help the poor of the Jerusalem church.

It is the very same issue we face today in the United States: will we work for a fair balance between those who currently have an abundance of riches and those who are in dire need?

New data released from the 2000 Census document the shameful number of poor children in desperate need all across our country.

In some counties, an astounding three out of five children are living in poverty.

Most of us tend to picture poor children living in big cities, but there are 38 counties with child poverty rates higher than in the poorest big cities. Almost all of them are rural counties: South Dakota's Buffalo County, Zieback County and Shannon County all have child poverty rates of 61 percent or more.

In nine states and the District of Columbia, at least one in five children is poor. Shamefully in the capital of the free world, within the shadows of the White House and Congress, almost one in three children is poor. Twenty-seven percent of Mississippi's children and 26.6 percent of Louisiana's children are poor. One in four of New Mexico's children and one in five of New York's children is poor.

It's time for America to do better.

A majority of poor children live in working families trying to play by the rules and to escape welfare. Children like Tony, Michael and Tasha. Their mother, Tina, is on a workfare program and homeless. She has been struggling to get her family back on its feet since she and her husband separated and he stopped paying child support.

They moved into her sister's low-income housing apartment. Tina applied for public assistance and obtained Medicaid for herself and her children and began a work program.

After Tina and her children had been living in her sister's home for nearly three years, the housing authorities told them that the apartment was overcrowded and that Tina and her children had to leave right away. They moved into the home of another relative, but the conditions there were even more overcrowded.

Thus, ironically, while Tina was still working and complying with welfare laws, she and her children became homeless. In the homeless shelter, they joined other families suffering from the stress and chaos homelessness produces.

Tina's children now struggle to survive amid the instability of shelter life, leaving the shelter for school while their mother leaves for her "welfare-to-work" job. The Census data reveal that nearly 12 million American children face the kind of poverty that Tina's children do.

Why do we not act to end this child deprivation?

Congress has the opportunity right now to alleviate child poverty by approving welfare reform and child care legislation that better helps families support their children and gives children the sound start they need to avoid future dependency. The goal of welfare reform should be to help families escape poverty not just escape from the welfare rolls.

Will Congress work for a fair balance between those with abundance and those in great need?

Rather than helping children and families in poverty and working to achieve a just balance in the budget between the rich and the poor, the Bush administration's budget choices leave millions of children behind; favor powerful corporate interests and the wealthiest taxpayers over children's urgent needs; and widen the gap between rich and poor — already at its largest recorded point in more than 30 years.

Congress approved a $1.3 trillion tax plan in 2001. Just the money spent for the tax cut for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans with average incomes of more than $1 million could lift millions of children in working families from poverty, and provide quality child care, Head Start, after-school programs, health care, nutrition and protections against child abuse and neglect and homelessness.

It is time for us to demand that the truly needy child living in South Dakota and the child who wants to bring a friend home after school but can't because home is a homeless shelter, go to the front rather than remain at the back of the line behind the truly non-needy.

Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children's Defense Fund.

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