Opinion

In poor American economy, help poor children

Government budgets are strained, and they're pushing out poor children. These kids need people with money and clout to advocate for them – people such as corporate lobbyists.

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Forgive me if this sounds familiar. Government budgets are strained past the breaking point – if the debt-ceiling debate hasn’t shown that, I don’t know what does. The easiest programs to cut are the “marginal” ones. And, in a sense, they are marginal. They are some of the smallest budget items, and they affect people at the margins of society.

Yet for the poor children who depend on them, these programs are central to their existence. With 9.1 percent unemployment nationwide and the most desperate economic circumstances in America in 70 years, poor children and families are in need now more than ever.

Let’s make this tough economy unfamiliar to them – different from the past ones. Let’s not make the last people who can afford to lose their benefits the first people to suffer.

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As chief executive officer of StandUp for Kids, an organization dedicated to helping homeless children, I see firsthand how dire the recession is for the most vulnerable. It’s in the eyes of the children our volunteers work with, like “Sweetie,” a young woman forced out of an emotionally unstable home, with no safety net, struggling to find food to eat or a safe place to fall asleep.

It’s borne out by the data. The number of children living in StandUp for Kids children’s home in Boston doubled last year.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, there are 15.5 million children in America under the poverty line. These children don’t have a fair shot at life – they’ll mostly likely go from foster care to a poor school to limited job opportunities, and often end their journey in prison.

And yet, the programs designed to prevent this unfortunate outcome are the first to go in a down economy. Take food stamps: 45 million Americans depend on them. The payments are far from lavish – the average payment is about $133 a month. Imagine if you had to do your monthly food shopping on that budget. Yet the Republican budget proposal for next year calls for cutting food stamps by a fifth from 2015. They would turn the program into a “block grant” to states that have far stricter budget contstraints than the federal government.

The depressing list of programs for poor children that face the chopping block goes on. States across the country are passing laws to cap the number of children who can enroll in early childhood education. Housing grants and vouchers are diminishing. Homeless shelters and food banks are scrambling to plug the hole in their budgets where government funding used to be.

With fewer pennies to go around, the bureaucratic fights over who gets the money grow more fierce. Again, poor children pay the price. For instance, under the foundational Elementary and Secondary Education Act, low-income students stuck in failing schools are entitled to free after-school tutoring, technically known as Supplemental Education Services.

This is a good program – the US Department of Education reports that it is effective, the large majority of the students it serves are African American or Latino, and over 650,000 kids receive it nationwide.

Yet the money to pay for the program comes from the federal government. The school administrators who receive the money would rather spend it on their own priorities, and the Department of Education plans to waive spending restrictions in the 2012-13 academic year. Just like everyone else, school districts are facing tight budgets. It is just plain wrong, however, to make up the budget gap on the backs of poor children.

The fundamental problem is that poor children don’t have a voice. They’re not wealthy like big business. They’re not organized, like professional organizations. They’re not focused on policy and politics. As StandUp for Kids sees every day, they’re more focused on their next meal and a warm bed.

I hope those of us who care about people in poverty can finally give them that voice. Simply put, our nation needs government to help poor children. Try as we might, nonprofit and private organizations provide only 6 percent of the food aid in this country. The other 94 percent is covered by federal, state, and local government, and no level of philanthropy can make up for that.

To its great credit, the National Conference of Mayors took a public stand for extended day programs like free tutoring, and good-hearted politicians around the country have taken up the cause. Yet poor children need people with more money, and more clout, to advocate for them.

They need concerned citizens with means to tell Congress to watch out for the neediest. They need the same lobbyists who do so much for corporations to do some pro-bono work for low-income housing and job training programs. They need philanthropists and wealthy, high-profile individuals to tell Congress, and the president himself, exactly how much they care about children with no home, no job, and no hope.

Poor children are all too easy to forget about. Most of the time, we don’t see them. They live on the margins, far away from where we can hear what they have to say. But they are always with us. Tough economic times are no excuse to turn our backs on them.

David Bakelman is chief executive officer of StandUp for Kids.

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