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The great defender.

Poverty is destroying the lives of an estimated 33.6 million Americas. The eroding of young and nonprofessional worker's earnings during the 1980s and the layoffs and economic stagnation of the early 1990s have thrust hundreds of thousands of people over the poverty line.

The reality of living in poverty means limited access to health care, child care services, proper health insurance, quality education and decent, affordable housing. The lack of these essentials has a dramatic and tragic effect on the lives of an estimated 13.4 million American children who are trapped in destitution.

Living in poverty-stricken households hits children hard, and the numbers are harrowing. The United States ranks 24th in the world in preventing infant mortality and is 29th in preventing low-birth-weight babies. An estimated 2.5 million children were reported abused or neglected in 1990. The National Academy of Sciences, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, estimates that a least 100,00 children go to sleep homeless every night. Moreover, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 27.

These dismal statistics moved Marian Wright Edelman to found the Washington, D.C.-based Children's Defense Fund (CDF) in 1973. As president, Edelman, 52, has led, with great ferocity, the CDF's efforts to protect America's youth; she has forged a reputation as a tenacious lobbyist and has gained influence and visibility as "the 101st Senator" on Capitol Hill. The private, non-profit organization's $8 million annual budget is funded by foundations, corporate grants and individual donations.

In January, after a decade-long battle with the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Bennettsville, S.C., native won an additional $200 million in funding for the nation's Head Start educational program. Not content with that victory, she now has the CDF waging a campaign called "Leave No Child Behind," an ambitious attempt to secure adequate health care services, high-quality childhood education programs and economic security for every child in America. Firmly grounded in her heritage at Spelman College in Atlanta and armed with a degree from Yale Law School, the former executive director of the Jackson, Miss., NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund told BLACK ENTERPRISE that lifting children from poverty may be the best way to help poor blacks share in the nation's prosperity.

In the following exclusive interview, Edelman discusses her mission and defined the challenges the CDF must face and overcome in the 1990s.

BLACK ENTERPRISE: What would the CDF like to accomplish within the next four years?

Marian Wright Edelman: Our overall goal is to make sure that this country places children at the top of the American agenda and invests in them preventively, before they get sick, drop out of school, get pregnant or get into drugs. Our specific goal for 2000 is to eliminate juvenile poverty. There are 13.4 million American children who are poor. we have a shrinking child population, and a disproportionate number of those are poor, black and minority children.

We are about to launch a major campaign to "Leave No Child Behind" in America in 1992. We want commitments from everybody running for public office and from all private-sector leaders to ensure every child gets a Healthy Start--preventive health care for every child and mother. Secondly, a Head Start. The president says Head Start works, the business community says it works, the Congress says they love it. We need to make sure that every child that needs Head Start gets it. And third, a Fair Start, which is economic security, jobs, child support and a child tax credit or family allowance that is refundable. If it is not refundable, it's not going to help the majority of black and poor families and children in this country.

BE: What is one of the biggest obstacles that may keep you from reaching your goals?

Edelman: Ignorance. There's ignorance in people who just don't know that we have a national child emergency. And there are a lot of people who are conveniently ignorant--they don't want to know.

BE: Ignorant politicians, or just an ignorant general public?

Edelman: Ignorant politicians, or just an ignorant general public? aware that we have a crisis among children. We don't think of how what happens to other people's children affects us. The future of this nation is going to depend on what happens to every poor child and every black child, as much as it's going to depend on what happens to the most privileged and affluent kids. Our ability to compete in the future against a unifying European Community and against growing Japanese and Pacific Rim strength, depends on those little children--black, brown, poor and rich. We've got to make people aware of their own self-interest in the investment in kids.

BE: What is your response to people who say the CDF advocates social programs that are going to make the country weak in the long run?

Edelman: We never try to lay out a problem unless we lay out a solution. We say here are the things that work, here's how much they would cost, here's how we would pay for them, here are the choices that you have, and we try to focus in on those things that have a tract record of success.

For example, we know that immunizations work. Every dollar you invest in immunization saves $10 on the other end. We know that prenatal care works. Yet a third of our mothers are not getting access to cost-effective prenatal care, and as a result, America has one of the highest low-birth-weight rates in the world. We know Head Start works; it saves us $4.75 for every dollar that we invest.

We're talking about investing in cost-effective, proven, successful programs that work, not investing in those things that don't work. And we don't think that the government is the only answer. We're talking about the whole community of the private sector, government at all levels, the parents, the religious congregations, all coming together in a variety of ways to support families and kids.

BE: Is there a general perception that CDF programs are simply for minority, welfare mothers and their children?

Edelman: That perception is a large part of the problem, and it is not true. The majority of poor children are white, not black. In fact, the majority of the poor are in rural and suburban areas, and not in the inner cities. So, we've got to change the face of the poor. We have had a 26% increase in poverty in this nation since 1979; 840,000 children plunged into poverty last year, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly in two-parent families. So, we've got to change people's perceptions on this issue.

BE: Even though you say the majority of the poor are now in white families, there's still an income gap between the white poor and the black poor. What do we do to close that income gap?

Edelman: The gap between the rich and poor has been widening, and the black/white gap is still something that we must address. It means that the black community is going to have to focus in on economic and social issues. The black community has got to move toward advocating for a substantive agenda for children and families--an agenda that cuts across race and class, where everybody feels that they are getting something.

Reaffirming issues in the '90s in terms of our children will allow us to broaden our base. We've got to pay attention to budget processes, how to communicate and how to use the media effectively. But more important, we've got to talk about health care, child care, education and safety issues.

BE: Is President Bush the "Education President" that he maintains he is?

Edelman: The results speak for themselves. President Bush has talked a wonderful game, like many of our Democratic political leaders, but where's the leadership and the investment behind those education goals? Where is the $2 billion that we need to move Head Start toward serving every eligible child by 1995? I think it is important that we stop letting politicians get away with wonderful rhetoric and slogans that are not backed by specific programs and specific investments. We want President Bush and every Democrat running for office to be judged by what they do, and not by what they say.

BE: What should the president be doing?

Edelman: He should be increasing dramatically preventive health services and talking about a national health insurance plan for every American. He should mandate or require, right now, universal health care for every mother and child, because it saves money. He could be out there leading the way for universal immunizations for every child in this country, which will save us money and save children's lives.

What he need so to do is reverse national priorities. He's got to make sure that he speaks to fairness in this country and not to the worst parts of us. He's got to make sure that he does not encourage racism, does not continue on the path of race, class and gender division. What he needs to talk about is investing in children by putting his leadership, his energy, his money and his concrete proposals behind that. The Democrats need to do the same.

BE: What do you propose to bring the school dropout rates of minorities down?

Edelman: The first thing we can do to prevent school dropouts is to make sure kids have parents who can support and nurture them. The largest predictor of school failure is poverty, and the largest predictor of who will become a teen parent is poverty and the lack of basic skills. Secondly, you've got to give every child a strong early childhood foundation. If they can't get it in the family, then they have to get it through Head Start, good quality child care and through family support systems. Third, we've got to make sure that every school expects every child to learn and then provides them with the support that they need. We've got to make it cool to be smart; we've got to reward those kids who beat the odds, stay in school, do not get pregnant and do not commit to drugs. Lastly, we've got to make sure that education pays. The black community has got to make sure that jobs as well as education and adequate wages are on the agenda of every elected official.

BE: Are you in favor of school choice?

Edelman: I am against the school-choice proposal put forth by the Bush administration. I think parents should have real choices, but I worry about resegregation. I worry that poor children are never going to have the choices middle-class children can have and that the public schools are going to be undermined.

BE: What's the dollar price tag for all of the programs, all the awareness campaigns, everything?

Edelman: We're talking $29 billion to $47 billion--a lot of money.

BE: What can companies, large or small, do to assist you in your efforts to held children?

Edelman: First, they need to see if their policies are family-friendly--in the health area, in the child-care area, in the parental-leave area--and whether they are giving information to parents. They need to see whether they are fair in hiring young people. And they need to support early investment in children.

BE: What can BE readers do to help?

Edelman: Don't let any political leader get away without you asking them whether they are going to support a Healthy Start and a Head Start and a Fair Start for every kid. Also, we can all volunteer some of our time to reach back and help a kid on a one-to-one basis. We can all be mentors. We can all be tutors. And I guess the last decent thing is that we can all try to set good examples for our kids.
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Title Annotation:Marian Wright Edelman
Author:Scott, Matthew S.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1992
Words:1980
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