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Blog: The Children's Defense Fund's (CDF) Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign

Jul 07, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

If you are not already familiar with the CDF's nationwide campaign, launched back in 2007, we urge you to check out the its website for national and state-level information -- as well as CDF President Marian Wright Edelman's weekly Child Watch column in the Huffington Post. Not only do I support this ongoing campaign for social justice, but I notice how it dovetails with so many of NETWORK's own initiatives, primarily our efforts to reduce inequality in this country.

The statistics presented at the CDF website are devastating. CDF says that "[n]ationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime." This horrifying trajectory is endangering children at younger and younger ages, which not only leads to marginalized lives but also premature deaths. One of the many reasons for this outcome is that states spend three times as much money per prisoner as per public school student. What does that say about our country's priorities?

CDF says that its vision is to "reduce detention and incarceration by increasing preventive supports and services children need, such as access to quality early childhood development and education services and accessible, comprehensive health and mental health coverage." If the universal preschool proposal, one of the president's key initiatives in his 2015 Budget is passed (not likely, say most), that should serve as a major response to CDF's vision.

Of course, access to comprehensive healthcare is extended through the Affordable Care Act, which NETWORK strongly supported and continues to work on, especially in the 24 states that have not chosen to extend Medicaid to all its citizens. In this context, it is important to remember that access to coverage does not guarantee enrollment in coverage. Lack of effective healthcare jeopardizes both children's education and their future.

Campaign summits have been held in numerous states since 2007 during which participants formulate action plans that focus on issues that are contributing to the crisis in their respective states. For example, several states, including Massachusetts, have addressed the problem of zero tolerance and other school discipline policies that tend to funnel children into the states' criminal justice system. Recently (2013-14) schools have been watching new school discipline policies in Buffalo, NY and Denver, CO as "best practices." The summits help the states to share promising approaches from other areas of the country.

CDF reminds us of the cruel facts of child poverty, a leading contributor to pervasive inequality.

  • More than 16 million children were poor in 2012 -- more than 1 in 5 -- and the youngest (under age 6) were the poorest. Yet these are the same years that child psychologists and pediatricians tell us are the years of the most rapid cognitive development.
  • Children of color are disproportionately poor and half the states had Black child poverty rates of 40% or more.
  • Child poverty leads to unacceptable child homelessness and hunger. More than 1.1 million public school students were homeless in the 2011-12 school year (the latest for which data is available), a 73% increase since before the recession. (Excuse the personal note at this juncture, but I have been involved in tutoring homeless children and have found in my personal experience that many homeless students are not only embarrassed by their circumstances and therefore have low self-esteem, but also typically fall behind in their studies often due more to moving around than to a lack of native intelligence).
  • More than 1 in 5 children lived in households that lacked access to adequate food in 2012 and 1 in 4 relied on food stamps (SNAP) to meet the nutritional needs on an average month. This amount of homelessness and hunger is partially explained by the fact that in 2014, it took about 3 full-time minimum-wage jobs on average to afford a fair-market rent for a two bedroom apartment and still have some funds left for food, utilities and other necessities.
  • Government safety net programs -- the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Child Tax Credit and SNAP -- lifted 9 million children from poverty in 2012.
  • Child poverty would have been 57% higher in 2012 without these programs and extreme child poverty would have been 240% higher.

Another major problem that CDF describes is rampant substance abuse. As we can see from the preceding facts as well as those listed below, we are dealing with disconnected youth who often lack a decent education or high school degree, lack job skills and have no social support systems or mentors. These are the youth who often resort to self-destructive acts, abusing drugs, tobacco and alcohol. Even when they seek help it is often not forthcoming because treatment is in short supply. Only about 10% of youth who seek help for a disorder receive treatment.

Lack of investments deprives children of critical support during their formative years. We already noted the disparity between funds spent on prisoners vs. children in schools. CDF provides us with additional significant facts:

  • Early Head Start funding served only 4% of the 2.9 million eligible poor infants and toddlers in 2012 and regular Head Start funding served only 41% of the eligible poor 3-4 year-olds.
  • In 2011, the average annual cost of center-based child care for a 4-year-old was $7,705, the same as the cost of in-state college tuition.
  • The nation's schools fail to educate all children, closing off a crucial pathway out of poverty. In 2013 66% of fourth graders in public schools were unable to read at grade level and that figure masked the fact that 81% of Latinos and 83% of Blacks also read below grade level. Also, 59% of these students were unable to compute at grade level and that percent includes 74% of Latinos and 82% of Blacks who were unable to compute at grade level.
  • In 2013 only 68% of Blacks graduated from high school in four years compared to 74% of Latinos and 85% of Whites.
  • Students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to drop out of school completely, thus helping to form that pipeline to prison, especially if they have encountered the criminal justice system during that process. Unfortunately, more than 17% of Blacks were suspended in the 2010-11 school year and more recent school publications indicate that the problem of suspensions has been exacerbated, not resolved in most jurisdictions.

Many vulnerable children face special risks. Among those risks are the following:

  • Almost 342,000 children were either abused or neglected in 2012, while almost 400,000 were in foster care.
  • Over 4,000 children are arrested each day and almost 2,000 are serving sentences in adult prisons.
  • Almost 2,700 children and teens were killed by guns in 2010 -- a rate of 3.2 out of 100,000 children and teens.
  • U.S. children and teens are 17 times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in 25 high-income countries. Since 1963, three times as many children and teens have died from guns on American soil than U.S. soldiers killed in action in the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Every year American companies manufacture enough bullets to fire 31 rounds into every American citizen.
  • Gun violence disproportionately affects children of color. Black children and teens were nearly 5 times (and Latino 3 times) more likely to be killed by guns than their White peers.

We can readily see how the few facts listed above (there are many more on the CDF website as well as photos, multimedia presentations and personal stories) impinge on so many areas where we at NETWORK are working in earnest:

  • increasing the minimum wage
  • reducing gun violence
  • saving safety-net programs
  • improving school nutrition
  • increasing employment opportunities and extending long-term UI
  • reducing inequality in all its dimensions.

And many more! The foregoing information from CDF should give everyone some new data to help in the ongoing effort to influence legislation and should also provide you with some new social justice friends in CDF's nationwide network.

Perhaps the ultimate killer fact (on a global level) was produced by the charitable NGO, Oxfam, a few weeks ago (and quoted by the IMF), whereby the organization estimates that the 85 richest people in the world own as much wealth as the bottom half (3.5 billion people) of the global population. What an unsettling contrast! How can such a heavily skewed distribution of wealth be morally justified? And based on its own calculations, the magazine Forbes concluded that only 67 billionaires owned as much as the world's poorest half. As it happens, neither Oxfam nor CDF nor NETWORK call for a global equalization of wealth – Oxfam may be more concerned about plutocracy than CDF, but since the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizen's United v. FEC, NETWORK is also concerned about this issue. But for CDF and NETWORK, a strengthening of social protection through an improved safety-net; an acknowledgement of and an end to racism; and critical investments, supports and services needed for the most vulnerable populations are the sine qua non of access to equal opportunity.

As CDF says in one of its policy priorities, "too many children live in poverty and suffer from preventable illnesses, neglect, abuse inadequate education and violence." I agree with CDF and one of the famous lines of Mahatma Gandhi: "Poverty is the worst form of violence."