While many Americans will be traveling to celebrate school graduations this weekend, hundreds of thousands of others will gather in Washington for another, more sober commencement. The "Stand for Children" these concerned Americans will be taking could offer a critical opportunity to fundamentally shift our understanding of who America's troubled children are and to begin to fashion an agenda that is more likely to meet their needs.
As the call for the event has made clear, this gathering is not only for poor and nonwhite children but for all children, and for adults who care about children's future. It is quite right to cast the problems of children this broadly. Americans think of vulnerable children chiefly as poor, black, ghetto children who live in single-parent homes - or, even worse, as marauding, Uzi-toting, black teenagers. Yet, serious as their troubles are, these children represent a small fraction of vulnerable children; policies based on these images can be destructive in the long run.
Vulnerable children are not simply poor children. Nearly two-thirds of children in this country who drop out of high school are not poor. While poor children are more likely to live in home environments that are unsafe and fail to meet their basic needs, studies show that the majority of children who live in such homes are not poor. Child abuse and neglect are clearly not bounded by class. Middle-class children are only slightly less likely to be sexually abused than poor children.
Nor are most vulnerable children African-American. Our child poverty rates and our youth-homicide rates, even if African-American children aren't included in the calculation, are nearly twice as high as almost any other industrialized country.
While children in single-parent homes are most likely to suffer various adverse outcomes, even if every child in this country grew up in a two-parent family we would still have high rates of high school failure, delinquency, and pregnancy among teens.
Nor are the problems of vulnerable children bounded by neighborhood. A very small fraction of vulnerable children live in ghettos. Only about 17 percent of poor children reside in ghetto neighborhoods, with the rest distributed roughly evenly among non-ghetto urban areas, suburbs, and rural areas.
While we need to directly combat poverty and racism, this huge gathering offers a critical opportunity to focus on the stresses and strains felt by children across race and class lines. Imperiled children are our children. Putting people in categories - by race, class, neighborhood - has reinforced the tendency to think of vulnerable children as other people's children. Robert F. Kennedy once called this "the vanity of our false distinctions among men." And it is vanity.
One of the greatest threats to children is parental depression. In every community in this country, children are suffering because their parents are overwhelmed and isolated. In a wide array of communities children are struggling because they have no contact with their fathers and no consistent involvement with community adults. Children today spend a large amount of time with other children. Many children in diverse communities are ostracized and scapegoated by peers. Inadequate schools are destroying the prospects of children in every race and class in our land.
Let's hope that the speeches on the Mall this weekend highlight these and other problems that should form the core of a national agenda for improving the lot of all children.