Mark Shields: Number of children living in poverty a national disgrace
With no prompting, the stranger standing next to you in line will volunteer, after checking his pedometer, how many steps he has already taken today, as well as how many miles per gallon his hybrid is getting. You may already know that among the baseball teams in the playoffs, the St. Louis Cardinals’ pitching staff has the lowest earned run average, allowing just 2.94 runs per game, or that of all the movies that have won the Oscar for best picture, the lowest-grossing one at the domestic box office after adjusting for inflation was 2008’s “The Hurt Locker,” which made $14.7 million. We Americans are frankly numbers-addicted.
We measure our progress. In the past five years, the nation’s economy has added 12 million jobs. The year the U.S. elected Barack Obama president, the country had 359 billionaires. Now, according to Forbes, there are 536 billionaires — 131 of them in California alone. But the nation’s median household income, which peaked at $56,895 in 1999, was just $53,657 in 2014. What these numbers do and do not mean — and who, if anyone, deserves any credit or blame for them — will be argued about from now until our next national Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016.
But there remains one surpassingly important national statistic that no Democratic or Republican contender has the courage, the conscience or the honesty to confront: In 2008, we in these blessed United States had living among us in poverty — which is defined as an annual income below $24,418, less than $67 a day, for an average family of four — some 13,241,000 children. In the resurgent America of 2014, where billionaires were growing like crabgrass and where half the members of Congress were millionaires, we had actually increased the number of poor American children — innocent human beings who, by definition, depend upon their elders for food, shelter, protection and guidance — by 2.5 million, to 15,740,000!
This is not just an unwelcome or embarrassing number. It is a national disgrace. Contrast the record in our shameful treatment of children with the country’s record improvement in the well-being of older Americans. In 1960, some 35 percent of Americans older than 65 lived below the poverty threshold. A half-century later, primarily because of the direct dollars from Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — SS provides over 70 percent of the income for a big majority of seniors — only 10 percent of seniors, compared with 21 percent of children, live in poverty.
So the same people — you and I — who determined to cut poverty among seniors by a smashing 71 percent looked the other way while over the past six years the poverty rate among the most defenseless in our midst, America’s children, was allowed to climb by 16 percent.
As we all know, senior citizens do vote, and they are not timid about lobbying candidates on their own behalf. (Haven’t heard many bold initiatives from the 2016 presidential field recently for cutting Medicare.) We also know that kids, especially poorer kids, do not have political action committees, which could buy a table — and some influence — at a congressman’s next fundraising dinner.
Credit Greg Weiner for reminding us in his splendid most recent book, “American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan,” that the New York giant warned how tragically exceptional America would be as “the first society in history in which the poorest group in the population were children.” Moynihan’s relentless answer was to “get more money directly into the hands of the poor.”
Let us demand that the dramatic reduction of poverty among American children be an urgent public priority, almost as important as eliminating the inheritance tax on billionaires, in the 2016 presidential campaign. What is each candidate’s commitment? How will we measure our progress? Who will answer the cry of the innocent children? We cannot look away.