While I’m all for dropping 20, kicking the habit and being more punctual, the most important resolutions we can make on New Year’s focus on our children, not ourselves. My jiggly thighs aren’t a national catastrophe, but the way we treat the next generation is.
It’s been widely reported that U.S. teens were found to have middling scores in math, reading and science compared with international peers and lagged particularly far behind Asian students. What got less attention was the equally startling statistic that nearly half of American public school students are living in poverty. Any adult who can’t see a connection deserves a big, fat “F.”
There are hundreds of changes we could make to improve the lot of America’s neediest children. I’m suggesting seven. I’d be thrilled if a critical mass of people adopted only one — provided they stuck with it.
1. We will stop giving lip service to “children being our future” and start acting on that truth.
It’s an odd person who wouldn’t say that kids are the future and deserve our support and protection. Yet children are the poorest Americans. Federal expenditures on children fell 7 percent between 2011 and 2012. While 10 percent of the federal budget is spent on children, 20 percent goes to defense and 41 percent to the non-child portions of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
2. We’ll be guided by research that shows us what investments most benefit children.
The sad thing about the problems facing our children is that we know how to solve them and have known for decades. For example, the Family-Nurse Partnership, which sends RNs into low income homes to teach families how to help their babies thrive, more than pays for itself in better health, higher graduation rates and lower incarceration rates. It’s been well-researched and well-publicized. But there’s not a slot available to every family who could benefit.
That’s only one example showing that our dollars don’t necessarily follow the best outcomes. We need to insist that they do.
3. We will make sure that every child starts school ready to learn.
Children from low-income families typically enter school with millions fewer words in their vocabulary than their more privileged peers. Millions! We know that high quality early childhood education can close such gaps and get children ready to perform well in kindergarten and throughout their academic careers. Family literacy programs that involve whole households in reading and other language-rich activities make a difference, too.
4. We will meet every child’s basic needs.
According to the USDA, 17 million children live with food insecurity. Research I did with my colleagues shows that 30 percent of low-income families cannot afford diapers. To say that we believe “the children are our future” when we allow these things to happen is outrageous hypocrisy.
5. We will stop using judgments about parents as an excuse not to help children.
This is one of my personal favorites. I’m in the business of providing free diapers to low-income families. I’m frequently told: “They shouldn’t have babies if they can’t afford them.” I could go on for ages about the various circumstances that can land people in poverty after they’ve had children and the general hubris of making pronouncements about who should and shouldn’t have babies. But I’ll leave it at this: No matter what you think of mom and dad, the kids didn’t create their own situation. The only moral response to a child in need is to help.
6. We won’t accept for other people’s children what isn’t good enough for our own.
There are schools in my city that don’t have school nurses. I try to imagine what would happen if one of the schools in the more prosperous areas of the city went without a nurse. Then I realize something: It would never happen.
Middle class Americans consider it essential that their children are well fed, get good health care, attend quality schools, live in a safe environment and have the opportunity to go to college. That’s a reasonable list, and that’s where we need to set the bar for every child.
7. We will recognize the potential of every child.
Students who can’t read at grade level by the 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate than those who can. The prospects are even worse when those children live in poverty and worse still for those who live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, according a studyaptly titled “Double Jeopardy” and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
So by third grade, the die is cast. (And there is a good case that it may happen sooner than that.) We are talking about 8-year-olds, children who have had no real chance to influence their own reality yet. It’s unacceptable that a child’s life should be limited by the circumstances of birth.
Of course, the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they’re meaningless unless they lead to consistent effort. I hope you’ll adopt one from the list — or maybe make up your own child-focused list — and come up with ways to act on it. Post your progress. Lots of readers would like to cheer you on, and so would I.
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