As Congress continues to negotiate and finalize a budget reconciliation package, we must ensure the needs of children are not sacrificed to protect rich individuals and corporations. Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put America’s most vulnerable children and families first, advance racial equity, and make a down payment on ending child poverty. Last week the House sent the Senate a strong package which would extend the expanded Child Tax Credit and ensure more children have access; invest in preventing eviction and homelessness; extend free school meals to 9 million more children; create a pathway to citizenship for many; establish universal paid leave; guarantee access to free, high-quality preschool; and more. We must now ensure the Senate does not weaken or cut these investments. Two- and three-year-olds have no politics and we must reject any leaders who for any reason play political football with our children’s lives and our nation’s future.

The greatest threat to America’s economic, military, and national security comes from no enemy without but from our failure, unique among high income nations, to invest adequately and fairly in the health, education, and sound development of all of our young. This year has been a turning point. Our nation made investments in anti-poverty programs that mitigated the impacts of the pandemic and helped millions of children escape or avoid falling into poverty. We can now see those investments working. We have come so far, and we must insist political leaders in every party at every level commit to finishing the task and ending child poverty for good.

Investing in children is not only the right but the smart and cost-effective thing to do. In CDF’s 1994 report Wasting America’s Future great MIT Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow presciently wrote: “For many years Americans have allowed child poverty levels to remain astonishingly high — higher than for American adults; higher than for children in nations that are our competitors; higher than from the entire period of the late 1960s and 1970s, a period when we had less wealth as a nation than we do now; and far higher than one would think a rich and ethical society would tolerate. The justification, when one is offered at all, has often been that action is expensive: ‘We have more will than wallet.’ I suspect that in fact our wallets exceed our will, but in any event this concern for the drain on our resources completely misses the other side of the equation: Inaction has its costs too…As an economist I believe that good things are worth paying for; and that even if curing children’s poverty were expensive, it would be hard to think of a better use in the world for money. If society cares about children, it should be willing to spend money on them.”

Some of our leaders have it made it clear that their will to end child poverty is grudging or nonexistent and their hearts and wallets are already closed. We cannot let them win and we must hold them accountable. If our leaders reject this generational opportunity to make these investments permanent and America allows its dream to fade for millions of poor, near poor, and middle-class children and families, we will miss the boat to the future and our opportunity to show the world a living and just society in a majority non-white and poor world desperately in need of moral example and hope.

To those who claim our nation cannot afford to invest in children and cannot afford to prevent them from going hungry, homeless, or uneducated, I say we cannot afford not to. If the foundation of your house is crumbling you must fix it. Education is a lot cheaper than ignorance. Preschool education is a bargain compared to prison. And consider how many good jobs a quality universal early care system would provide at a time of rampant unemployment and declining wages. Investing in children is a win-win for everyone.

After Dr. King’s assassination riots and looting broke out in cities across America including Washington, D.C. where I had moved from Mississippi to help prepare for Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. I went into schools to talk to children to tell them not to loot and jeopardize their futures. A young Black boy about 12 looked me in the eye and said “Lady, what future? I ain’t got no future. I ain’t got nothing to lose.” It’s time for our nation to prove this boy’s truth wrong and give him and the 11.6 million poor children like him today a fair chance to succeed.

Marian Wright Edelman is the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.

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