Children Left Behind

This is the second in a series of articles on how domestic programs can affect The American Dream of finding meaningful work and earning a living wage. This article focuses on the need for adequate and affordable child care. The people are real but names are changed.


Shirley is 36 and wears her newly re-grown hair in a thick ponytail. Chemotherapy is over and life is getting back to normal in some ways. However, she hasn't been able to replace the nurse's aide job she lost while sick. When interviewed, she was at a food pantry in north central Pennsylvania, picking up three days worth of food for herself, her husband, and their four children.

Three of Shirley's children have special needs. The oldest two have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and another is mentally retarded. Her husband receives SSI (Supplemental Security Income); he's home all day due to his own health problems but unable to cope with the demands of special needs children. Shirley wants The American Dream; she wants to earn a living and take care of her children. But her ability to work depends on her ability to find appropriate and affordable child care for the after school hours.

Joseph also needs child care, but for a different reason.

Joseph likes to travel. His mother jokes, "His suitcase is never unpacked!" His longest period of steady employment was three years at a fast food restaurant. It paid enough for him to have a small apartment and take care of his own needs. He liked having a steady job. It built his character and self-esteem, he said, to be independent of others.

But life changed when he took on the responsibility of raising his sister's three children while she serves time in jail for selling drugs. The oldest is only nine; the youngest of the three is not yet in school and the other is only in a half-day program. He'd be glad to take any sort of job he could get but he can't find one that could accommodate the children's school schedule or one that would pay enough to cover the cost of full day and after school care for all three children.

The irony, Joseph says, is that as a "street pharmacist," his sister earned plenty of money. In fact, she had more money to care for her children than he has now, he said as he was interviewed at a local charitable organization trying to find the money to keep his electricity turned on.

Joseph could put the children into the system and get out from under the responsibility but he wants to hold his family together. He wants his sister's children to have their chance at The American Dream. All he asks for is affordable, adequate child care.

In Pennsylvania, the National Child Care Information Center reports, there are about three-quarters of a million children under age five. More than 60% of them have working parents but almost 20% are living in poverty -- more than 140,000.

The Bush administration, in 2002, signed an early childhood initiative called Good Start, Grow Smart (www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/earlychildhood/toc.html) -- reflecting his slogan "not one child left behind." The web page states that federal funding for child care has tripled in the past decade, caring for "an estimated 2.7 million children per month." However, the web site goes on to admit that those funds provide care for only "72% of children between the ages of 3 and 5 whose parents are low income and work at least 20 hours a week."

Approximately $18 billion of federal and state money is being poured into the care of young children nationally and yet almost 30% of those in need are still not receiving care. In Pennsylvania, more than $200 million of federal money goes into the CCDF (Child Care Development Fund) and TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). And yet, Shirley and Joseph depend on local charities for food and utilities because the children in their care are in the neglected 30%.

Perhaps the answer to the problem is simple. Instead of slashing domestic programs in the federal budget, we could allocate another $9 billion to child care programs so 100% of those living in poverty have access to the care that's needed. The money being spent on a war in Iraq could cover that, if we were to truly want no child left behind. The dollars paid for political campaigns would cover it. The waste in the military and government spending would be enough. The tax breaks about to be given to the rich would more than care for our nation's poor children.

But since we haven't chosen to take that course, perhaps the answer isn't so simple. Perhaps it is our basic attitudes toward the poor, toward poor children especially, that need to be changed before any amount of money would help.

In the mid-1800s, thousands of poor children roamed the streets of New York. Immigrant children -- parents dying of disease, unemployed, homeless -- survived by stealing, prostitution, and manual labor. Even the compassionate were overwhelmed by the number needing help. A pastor began the Children's Aid Society which eventually developed a solution which became known as The Orphan Train. The children would be cleaned up, put on trains, and sent west. As the trains stopped at towns in Missouri, Kansas, Texas, the children would be paraded out, asked to sing a song, poked and prodded like slaves on an auction block. And, if they were lucky, taken into someone's home to be raised and educated as one of the family.

As the project began, the pastor who started it all, Charles Loring Brace wrote, "When a child of the streets stands before you in rags, with tear-stained face, you cannot easily forget him, and yet you are perplexed what to do. The human soul is difficult to interfere with. You hesitate how far you should go."

A century and a half later, it seems, we are still perplexed about how far we should go to realize The American Dream for our children in poverty.

Perry, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, is a United Methodist minister in Central Pennsylvania. Email her at tonyperry7@suscom.net.

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