Monday, February 15, 2010

Poverty's Cost Starts Early

Poverty's devastating effect on children's well-being is well-documented. A recent study by Child Trends indicates that the "achievement gap" emerges even before a child's first birthday.

Income-based disparities in cognitive, social, behavioral, and health outcomes appear as early as 9 months and are magnified by 24 months. For example, infants and toddlers from low-income families score lower on a language skills assessment than children from higher-income families. Young children from high-risk backgrounds—i.e., children from racial/ethnic minority groups, whose home language was not English, and/or who had mothers with low maternal education—also have lower outcomes.

The study suggests four policy implications:

1. Start early. Since differences in development can already be detected as early as nine months, interventions also need to start as early as infancy.

2. Target low-income children. Recognize the impact of poverty on children's development and reach out to children in high-risk families.

3. Engage and support parents. Since low maternal education is a key risk factor, children will benefit from providing parents with opportunities to achieve their own educational and vocational goals.

4. Improve the quality of early care settings. High-quality child care and early education (whether in child care centers or at home) can help overcome these demographic risk factors.

See an executive summary of the study, and read Marian Wright Edelman's commentary, Leaving the Littlest Ones Behind.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Training Leaders to Transform the Lives of Children

Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, a 2009 graduate of Morehouse College made a commitment to serve as an intern with National Ministries American Baptist Churches USA at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in Washington, D.C. The focus of his assignment was two fold:

  • Participation in the CDF Freedom School Program Training to assess how National Ministries might encourage more American Baptist Churches to host 10 week Freedom Schools in their communities, and:
  • Research and analysis of the CDF model of advocacy and engagement of children’s issues and see where communities of faith can amplify and sustain our witness for children.

Both of these assignments related specifically to Children in poverty.

Read and respond to his reflections.

“Though National Ministries and the Children’s Defense Fund work on behalf of all children—it is those stuck in what C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya called “the crisis sector” that received particular attention during my internship. Poverty is a leading indicator of crisis position.

My orientation to this work came at the Ella Baker Child Policy Institute’s Freedom Schools National Training in Clinton, Tennessee. CDF began The Freedom Schools project for after school and summer educational reinforcement and enhancement that encourages reading and social engagement by children for children. The Program is modeled to honor the 1964 Freedom Summer where civil rights workers went to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote while also empowering them with education and cultural enrichment activities.

The experience at the training was inspirational. It motivated me to renew my commitment to service. I witnessed positive transformation and likely the best preparation for social change agents in the country. Over a thousand educated, predominately African American youth supported by a wide range of socially responsible institutions spent a week at the Alex Haley Farm working through the basics of classroom management, social empowerment and civic engagement exercises on behalf of children.

Team building exercises and large group lectures were the first activities to which interns were exposed. Then, first year servant leader interns -- as the student teachers are titled -- concentrated on the implementation of educational objectives. They first became familiar with their materials and second, modeled their lessons with each other. The interns were critiqued and coached through their presentations, by specialized CDF youth leadership development trainers. By the end of the week, previously introverted persons were in full instructional effect. They looked like trained educators. They were intense, funny, compassionate and thorough.

Returning interns were given enhanced versions of team building and lesson development exercises. They were—depending on the grade level with which they work—connecting the literature to pertinent social concerns and issues that affect children. Site coordinators—adult supervisors of the interns during their summer work—were briefed on managing their sites and connecting their respective communities to local issues and potential partners. The CDF utilized its national staff to educate all groups on policy initiatives and updates that are germane to child advocacy issues.

The success of the Freedom Schools model is due in part to the recruitment of new interns and the participation of returning interns. A cycle of recruitment and reinforcement is equipping a corps of transformative leaders for any context. It was reassuring to know that the work of education and social justice is being addressed by an empowered group of my peers.

Freedom Schools are the most substantial link this generation has to the mass action initiatives of the American Civil Rights Movement. The expansion of the Freedom Schools program—from a summer intensive program to a full year afterschool literacy enrichment agenda—will be a significant part of our nation re-engaging the needs of children and ultimately preparing them for fuller, better developed lives.”


What do you think it will take for you to renew your commitment to children in poverty?

What do you think are the benefits of youth training youth?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Living Now Book Award

It's not often one gets a medal in the mail. But that was my pleasant surprise when I opened a package from Judson Press.

Our book Hope for Children in Poverty was awarded a bronze medal from Living Now Book Awards. This award is presented by the Jenkins Group, which is "dedicated to promoting books that enlighten readers, bring families together, and make the world a safer, healthier place," says founder Jerrold Jenkins.

This award joins two others: Hope for Children in Poverty has also been recognized as a finalist in the Social Change category of the National Best Books 2007 Awards and as "notable" in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer 2008 Book Awards. It was also the ABC Reads selection in 2008.

Since I got a medal, I get to make a speech: Thanks again, Judson Press for publishing Hope for Children in Poverty. Thanks to my colleague and co-editor Ron Sider, and to all the contributors who made this book possible. Most of all, thanks to the untiring and mostly unsung ministries around this nation serving children in poverty, and to the children who make it all worth it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Overheard at a Diner

As I sat working late at night at a diner, appreciating the bottomless pot of coffee (ah, the things that people with small children are driven to do to get things done!), my train of thought was derailed when a boisterous young crew was seated at a table near mine. Obviously intoxicated, they didn't seem to care who overheard their loud conversation, and their risqué humor and foul language was rather distracting to the theological essay I was attempting to edit. Midway through their meal, one of the young ladies had to rush to the bathroom to throw up.

I was not trying to eavesdrop (in fact, I was trying not to) but I couldn't help overhearing snatches about partying and sexual exploits. But suddenly my attention was riveted when one of them mentioned her toddler daughter. Then another interjected a story about his son—including references to discipline that made me cringe. The casual way in which their children entered the conversation, jumbled together with the off-color comments and general sense of self-absorbed aimlessness, struck me as both pitiable and alarming. As childish young adults, they aroused my compassion; as childish parents, my anger.

I don't know whether they were technically poor, in terms of income. But there are other kinds of poverty. If my snap judgment was correct (I do admit to being judgmental), they looked like poor parents – in the sense of lacking sufficient resources (emotional, relational, informational, social, spiritual) to be able to provide for their children an adequate standard of life. I don't doubt that they love their children, but their expression of that love appears sadly deficient. Their children (again, in my snap judgment) are not necessarily abused or neglected, but they are likely to grow up stunted.

And like income poverty, perhaps one reason this group of young parents lack these resources is because they also grew up without them. Perhaps their parents also were too young, too unstable, too insecure and immature to be able to lay a strong foundation for healthy development in mind, body, soul and spirit. And their children? Will my daughter overhear a similar conversation from the next generation of emotionally impoverished and unprepared parents someday? Or will others step in to "share good news with the poor"?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Child Homelessness

"It is virtually impossible to reclaim the life of a child who has spent his childhood without a home."

I don't know if that is true. In fact, there are ministries all around the country investing in homeless children and their families precisely because they take it as a matter of faith that reclaiming these lives is not only possible but mandated. Or perhaps, if this is really is an impossible task, that we are called to work miracles.

If so, the demand for miracles is growing. According to America’s Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness, a report from the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH), more than 1.5 million children become homeless each year. This means that one out of every 50 children and their families have gone to sleep in a shelter, a car, an abandoned building, or on the streets.

The executive summary describes the implications of this statistic:

These children also endure a lack of safety, comfort, privacy, reassuring routines, adequate health care, uninterrupted schooling, sustaining relationships, and a sense of community. These factors combine to create a life-altering experience that inflicts profound and lasting scars.

Children without homes are twice as likely to experience hunger as other children. Two-thirds worry they won’t have enough to eat. More than one-third of homeless children report being forced to skip meals. Homelessness makes children sick. Children who experience homelessness are more than twice as likely as middle class children to have moderate to severe acute and chronic health problems. Homeless children are twice as likely as other children to repeat a grade in school, to be expelled or suspended, or to drop out of high school. At the end of high school, few homeless students are proficient in reading and math – and their estimated graduation rate is below 25%.

Child homelessness has been relatively concentrated – with 11 states contributing three-quarters of all homeless children. (Find out how your state ranks on the interactive map at With the rash of foreclosures and general economic downturn, homelessness is expected to grow both more prevalent and more widespread. (How many foreclosures have there been in your state since the start of this year? Find out at the Center for Responsible Lending website.)

"If we fail to act," the report concludes, "the consequences will play out for years to come as a generation of lost children grow to adulthood." Yet the report also affirms that action is possible, even in these harsh economic times. It provides a list of measures that federal, state and local governments can take toward the goal of ending child homelessness within a decade.


* Visit the "America's Youngest Outcasts" website and download the report here

* Read about Colfax Community Network, a ministry with children in precarious housing profiled in Hope for Children in Poverty, here

Faith in New Beginnings

Christmas to Easter … the symbolic span of Jesus' earthly life. I acknowledge it's a long time to go between postings. Life has been hectic the past few months. But the desire to keep pushing for change and gathering the voices of those who yearn for a better life for children has not diminished. Resurrection season is a good time for good things to be reborn.

May the Good News of new life in Christ come alive within you, and flow through you to the world--and especially to children!

Monday, December 22, 2008

All I Want for Christmas Is ...

... an economic recovery package that truly empowers families!

Here's an excerpt from the email I just got from that made me pause in my holiday preparations to send a quick message to Congress:

Right now, yes today, Congress is putting together an economic recovery package and we need you to take a brief moment to tell them not to forget about the economic security needs of families (that's us!).

*Send a holiday letter with 1-click to your Congressional representatives telling them to include families in the Economic Recovery Package which they're drafting right now:

Your letter will alert Congress that they need to incorporate the MomsRising Top Priorities for Families in their Economic Recovery Package--ensuring healthcare coverage for all children and then quickly moving forward to full healthcare reform, expanding unemployment insurance to cover part-time workers, giving states funds for family and medical leave insurance, funding quality early learning programs, and creating jobs which help everyone get ahead.

Here's the link to a detailed description of the five priorities in the Family Economic Recovery Passage. It's an impressive Christmas wish list.

Well, back to wrapping presents and helping my kids make ornaments for their grandparents. Have a blessed celebration of Jesus' birthday!