When President Barack Obama recently made an impassioned plea to do something about the proliferation of gun violence in America, he drew upon the images of elementary school children gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut to engage our emotions.
“First graders,” he exclaimed, with tears coursing down his cheeks.
His reference to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting seemed like a strong rhetorical tug that should spur citizens and lawmakers alike to take action to reduce gun deaths, especially deaths of children.
But do Americans really care all that much about children – other than their own?
Certainly, conversations with individual Americans still elicit lots of sentiment for the well-being of kids. But it’s increasingly harder to see that sentiment reflected in policy.
As the Southern Education Foundation revealed in a study a year ago, a majority of children attending the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families. And there are more homeless students in American schools than ever before.
These developments have huge implications. The impact of poverty on the future well-being of children is quite well known. Students who come to school hungry have more difficulties focusing on schoolwork. Students who grow up without books in the home or without computers or Internet access at home have a severe disadvantage in today’s schools. Students who don’t have stable home lives or who need clothing or lack medical care are more apt to have behavioral problems.
Yet what has been the policy response to this? Federal, state, and local support for education and health and nutrition services to children have been steadily declining over the years. Our nation responded to news about the increase of poor children by cutting spending on child welfare for the first time in 20 years. In 2014, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell looked at a report from the Urban Institute and found “a smaller and smaller share of government budgets is expected to go to children over the coming decade.”
Conservatives like to say it’s not government’s job to address these issues, but it’s pretty apparent not anyone else has taken up the cause.
The most recent annual assessment of child well-being compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that since 1990 government supplements to children living in poverty have helped lessen somewhat the impact of rising poverty rates for children. But more recent trends show the economic well-being of children worsening in just about every way measurable.
In looking over data from the most recent report on the state of America’s children, from the Children’s Defense Fund, another Post writer, Valerie Strauss, quotes from the report, “Children are the poorest age group and the younger they are the poorer they are.”
So the situation is getting worse, even as the economy has slowly recovered from the Great Recession.
Currently, there are few signs of any political discussion of the calamity befalling the nation’s children. Even though fears of growing economic insecurity dominate the current presidential election primaries, the candidates hardly ever address the effects of that insecurity on children. And education, so critical to every child regardless of income, is being mostly ignored, except for the issue of college debt, something that occurs when children become adults.
Big numbers don’t tell the whole story of course. Anecdotal evidence of our, not just neglect, but abject militant disregard for the needs of children is even more disturbing. But there are recent examples of adults taking actions to change policies and practices to address the needs of children, and those examples are growing and spreading.
Worst Of The Worst?
To see what may be the worst of the worst of how we are treating children, go to the state of Michigan.
According to the Casey foundation’s rankings, Michigan is not the worst state in terms of child well-being. That honor belongs to Mississippi. But it’s not great: number 32. And there are signs it may be rapidly going down hill.
The Great Lakes State, like so many others, has been dominated by conservative governance that’s taken a meat axe to government spending. Perhaps the most egregious example of government stinginess is found in the city of Flint, where efforts to “peel away money in the budget” led to the poisoning of the city’s water system, according to an account from the content sharing site Upworthy.
A local mom was the first to sound the alarm, in November 2014, when her child became ill, and the attending pediatrician found alarming levels of lead in the child’s blood. The lead was traced to the city’s water supply. But in addressing the situation, government authorities dragged their feet for nearly a year until the evidence became overwhelming in a report documenting heightened lead levels in the blood of over 1,700 children. Now the state’s governor, Rick Snyder, has called out the National Guard to distribute safe drinking water, but great damage has been done.
Heightened lead levels aren’t good for adults, but they are especially damaging to children. As the Upworthy report explains, “Lead poisoning has disastrous long-term effects. Learning disabilities and other cognitive impairments are almost certain among a significant portion of the children poisoned, as lead poisoning affects brain volume, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and impulse control.”
But it’s important to note the poisoning of children in Flint is not an isolated example of bureaucratic bungling. It’s a logical consequence of a specific ideology. Circle of Blue, a nonprofit that monitors freshwater supplies around the world, explains “Flint’s crisis is the third time during the administration of Republican Governor Rick Snyder that decisions about water supply and water quality at the most senior levels of state government have put state residents in harm’s way.”
In each of those decisions, state officials, including the governor, put cost-savings above the well-being of citizens, especially children. Flint, the report contends, “had no water problem until the state governor, driven by ideological principles of reducing taxes and administrative costs, appointed an emergency manager who decided to save $5 million.”
Before you dismiss Flint’s water crisis as an outlier, consider also what is happening in the state’s public schools.
Making A Stand In Motor City
As a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds, Michigan is one among the majority of states in the country that has continued to cut education spending since the recession, despite growing populations of students and changing student demographics that make the job of educating children much more costly.
Often, the effects of these cuts are overlooked because of the decline in percentage of households with children of school age. But the effects are readily apparent to the adults who work in those schools, and public school teachers have become the canaries in the coalmine of social and emotional conditions for the nation’s children.
In Detroit, school conditions have gotten so bad, teachers have staged sickouts that prompted the closing of over 60 schools. As the New York Times reports, the teachers are protesting, “unsafe, crumbling, vermin-infested, and inadequately staffed buildings.”
The sickouts got the mayor’s attention, and when he finally visited a school, “He saw a dead mouse, children wearing coats in cold classrooms, and a gym floor too warped for play,” according to the Associated Press.
“There’s no question about the legitimacy of the issues [the teachers are] raising,” he said.
Conservative Michigan lawmakers, true to form, have responded to the sickouts by devising ways to shut them down. One of the most vocal critics of the teachers, as education historian Diane Ravitch notes on her personal blog, is the very same person who made the decision to shut off safe drinking water in Flint.
Nevertheless, Detroit teachers are taking on the burden of speaking for the welfare of their students despite the wrath of lawmakers. They are doing so because they feel they have to. In an open letter to Detroit parents from one of the protesting teachers Sarah Jardine, she writes, “I apologize because I should have stood up. I kept quiet as they dismantled our schools … What makes me fighting mad is that your child, who I call ‘one of my kids’, is learning in an environment that is in total chaos.”
Standing Up For Students
If there’s a bright spot in all of this, it is that teachers in many schools are taking action to alleviate the impact of our societal assault on school children, especially those who are low-income or marginalized because of their race or ethnicity.
There’s evidence more teachers are standing up in the face of declining school conditions and the effects increased economic insecurity is having on their students. Writing on his Facebook page, economist and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says, “Teacher’s unions are justifiably demanding resources for schools and school systems that have been abandoned by politicians and by elites who send their kids to private schools and either don’t know what’s happening or don’t give a damn.”
In Chicago, teachers are prepared to strike this year unless the current administration of Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, and the state legislature take steps to alleviate worsening conditions in their schools, especially those schools that serve black and Latino students. As Sarah Jaffee reports for TruthOut, a principal demand for the striking teachers is for “wraparound services” that include health and counseling support for students who are most affected by high poverty and crime that afflict so many neighborhoods. The teachers’ fight also connects to the current protests over police violence against black youth and communities of color in the city.
In St. Paul, Minnesota, teachers are also considering striking for their students. In this case, their demands are for more support services to help them deal with student behavior problems that can often be traced to stress from difficult home life and poverty. “Teachers have been asking for more counselors, social workers, nurses and support staff,” according to a report from Sarah Lahm for In These Times, “and they want more time to work directly with students. If the St. Paul Public Schools will not agree to support this platform, as a behavior prevention approach, then the St. Paul Federation of Teachers will soon be ready to hit the picket line.”
These actions reflect the demands that striking teachers in Seattle were recently able to win in their successful action. As Jesse Hagopian explains for The Progressive, the interests of children drove the politics and helped the teachers win important concessions, including mandatory recess periods, additional staff such as school counselors and therapists, a reduction in the over-testing of students, and the creation of new teams in 30 schools to ensure equitable learning opportunities and treatment of students regardless of race.
Importantly, labor strikes aren’t the only actions teachers are taking to address the effects that rising economic insecurity is having on students. More school districts are responding to the voices of teachers and establishing community schools that include many of the “wraparound services” teachers have been advocating for in their labor actions. And in the schools themselves, many more students are now benefiting from restorative justice programs that address discipline issues through discussion, negotiation, and counseling rather than out-of-school suspensions.
But teachers can’t be the only ones speaking out for children, and they shouldn’t have to be. Who else will join them?