Public opinion polls consistently show a strong, bi-partisan consensus on the need to invest in our kids. Yet even as Americans demand a greater focus on children, public investments are shifting away from them.
– Children Now 2005 California Report Card
When I was a young teen, my mom and I drove through one of the poorest parts of Chicago. I don’t remember the exact reason for the trip, but it became a lesson about fear and empathy.
Seeing the abject poverty firsthand, I had empathy for those who lived there. But because the very neighborhood we drove though had a horrific murder rate, we locked the doors and drove through as quickly as possible.
Decades later, I often find myself driving down surface streets of Los Angeles to get around some horrible traffic jam caused by a jack-knifed truck or overturned tricked up Honda Civic. Most of these neighborhoods seem fine during the day but reportedly can be dangerous at night.
But I am just struck by how many children and teens live in these “bad” neighborhoods. I use quotes, because this is how most of us describe poor parts of the city.
When we talk about how children are faring in today’s America, we’re invariably talking about kids who live in “bad” neighborhoods. We tend to forget that children from this part of our society constitute the largest portion of the population in the United States.
What distinguishes a city like Los Angeles from one like Madison, WI, is sheer size. In other words, it’s a lot tougher to hide the poor in Southern California.
Children Now’s annual Report Card (pdf) reveals a lot about the children the upper middle class hardly ever sees, but is aware of on the periphery.
Here’s the Report Card in a nutshell:
- B- Health Insurance
- C- Dental Insurance and Access
- D Childhood Obesity
- C+ Adolescent Health
- B+ Infant Health
- D+ Economic and Food Security
- C Early Education
- D+ K-12 Education
- B- After School
While none of the grades are great, the three Ds pose the most immediate threat to the well-being of our children. None of these issues are new to DadTalk, but Children Now provides some chilling statistics, which I go into more detail below.
Childhood Obesity: D
Childhood obesity puts children at risk for physical and emotional problems, places long-term strains on our health system, and threatens to reduce life expectancy for the first time in modern history.
Here’s how Children Now supports that statement:
- 28 percent of 5th, 7th and 9th graders were overweight in California in 2004.
- This is a 6 percent increase over 2001 using the measure mentioned above.
- 74 percent of 9th graders fail to meet state all-around physical fitness standards.
- Children ages 8 and up spend nearly 6.5 hours consuming media, which includes TV, videos, video games, print media, music and computers. This time cuts deeply into physical activity levels.
- The average child watches 40,000 TV advertisements each year, 74 percent of which are food ads.
Economic and Food Security: D+
Almost 20 percent of California children live in poverty, according to official statistics, but that number is ridiculously low. Why? Because the government claims that the poverty level for a family of four is below $19,157 a year.
In California, such numbers are a joke. The cost of a modest apartment, even in a poor neighborhood, would eat up most of that income.
A whopping 42 percent of California’s children live in low-income families, which means these families – two adults and two children – live on less than $37,320 a year.
K-12 Education: D+
If we want America’s kids to have a better life, the best route is through education. Unfortunately, California’s school system will condemn a large majority of our kids to a life of menial jobs.
Here are some statistics to back this up, according to Children Now:
- Fewer than 55 percent of 3rd and 7th graders scored at or above grade level in math or reading achievement tests in 2005.
- Only 71 percent of California’s kids graduate high school.
- Only 60 percent of Latinos and 57 percent of Blacks will graduate. Barely half of Native American students graduate high school.
As I’ve grown older, I no longer fear the “bad” neighborhoods the way I used to. Back then, it was just a fear of scary people with guns and knives. But I now see that these are people just trying to achieve the same things in life that many of us have already accomplished. They are just coming from a much worse starting point.
Many of those who comment on this site blame the parents, but it is time for a paradigm shift. We cannot blame parents for all of these failures. Even if parents are to blame, that does not excuse us from the responsibility of taking care of this nation’s children.
Poor families send their kids to schools in good faith that our government is providing them with a reasonably good education. We have broken that trust.
Many parents who rely on electronic media to keep their kids busy do so because they’re working long hours in thankless jobs that the rest of society does not want to take. They probably feel it’s better to have their kids watching TV than hanging out on dangerous streets.
Obesity further hurts children’s chances of moving on to a better life because it is a symptom of the other two problems: inadequate education on the dangers of unhealthy lifestyles and parents working too hard to take proper care of their children.
Most of us agree that something needs to be done. But as the quote at the beginning of this post states, political leadership continuously ignores the fundamental needs of its population. Sadly, this trend of broken promises seems poised to continue.