America is failing its most vulnerable children.
The United States does not provide a level playing field for all children and does not protect all young lives equally, says a recent report by the Children's Defense Fund. Poor children and children of color, in particular, "already are in the pipeline to prison before taking a single step or uttering a word," the report states. Many youth in juvenile detention facilities have never been on the track to college or a successful life. "They were not derailed from the right track; they never got on it," the organization says.
Much of the problem is due to poverty, and children of color are more likely to be afflicted. One-quarter of Latino children and one-third of black children are poor. Black children are more than three times as likely as white children to be born into poverty, and are more than four times as likely to live in extreme poverty, according to the report.
For millions of poor children - failed by their families and by the child-welfare and juvenile-justice systems - a life of prison awaits them. Prison is the only universally guaranteed program for children in America, the study notes, as America increasingly criminalizes its youth and spends nearly three times as much per prisoner as it does per student - this in a country with 2.3 million prisoners, the world's largest inmate population, more prisoners than in China, a nation that has four times as many people as the United States.
And those who are incarcerated are disproportionately of color, products of a society that has neglected and marginalized them. Children of color are more likely to be placed in programs for mental retardation and in foster care, and are more likely to be suspended from school, or left back a grade or to drop out. And youth of color, 39 percent of the juvenile population, are 60 percent of incarcerated juveniles, according to the report.
A black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. A Latino boy has a one in six chance. Today, as a result of unfair drug laws and draconian sentencing, failing schools, and a lack of opportunity, 580,000 black men - many of them fathers - are doing time in state and federal prisons, while only 40,000 graduate from college each year, an astonishing statistic.
All of this comes down to a lack of commitment by our society, misplaced priorities and squandered resources. The Children's Defense Fund makes a number of recommendations for dismantling the cradle-to-prison pipeline, including full funding of Head Start, making sure that children can read by the fourth grade, ensuring health insurance for all pregnant women, eradicating child poverty by 2015, eliminating hunger, and providing jobs with a living wage.
The money is available. These and other recommendations are estimated to cost around $75 billion, with $55 billion to eradicate child poverty, the Children's Defense Fund says. Repealing the tax cuts for the top 1 percent richest people would provide $57 billion. And, to put things in perspective, the war in Iraq has cost more than $450 billion through 2007, about $100 billion a year.
The price that America must pay in lost productivity due to its 13 million impoverished children - $500 billion - should give all of us sticker shock. America cannot afford the cost of allowing these children to suffer.
A nation is best judged by the manner in which it treats its children. America's treatment of children is shameful. Now is the time to clean up our act and give all kids an equal chance in life.
David A. Love s a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.
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