July 3, 2019
Tomorrow marks our country’s 243rd birthday. We’ve come a long way, yet there is still so much work to do to realize our founders' vision. Because today, nearly 250 years after the Declaration of Independence, we still do not have equality—even for "all men"—and we have not secured for all the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These inalienable rights are still out of reach for many, especially for historically and persistently marginalized populations, low-income families, and immigrants looking to the United States for a better, safer life as did our own families.
For me, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means—at the very least—having enough money to meet my family’s basic needs, having the freedom to travel from place to place without fear of being questioned as to why I’m there, and being able to raise my children with the expectation that their lives will be better than mine. By this measure, we the people are far from ensuring these rights for our nation's children and families.
Life. Nearly 21 percent of children in the United States live in poverty, and about 43 percent live in low-income families. Poverty is destabilizing for families and detrimental to child well-being. Children who experience periods of persistent poverty can have poorer lifelong educational, health, and economic outcomes. Children from families living in poverty are more likely to experience multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Exposure to multiple ACEs physically alters children’s brains and leaves a lasting imprint on their lives. The detained young migrant children, many of whom are fleeing danger in their home countries, are now separated from their loved ones in an unfamiliar, unwelcoming place and are terrified they will never see their family members again. Here, in our country, they continue to experience multiple ACEs.
Liberty. People of color in the United States must navigate explicit and implicit bias everyday, wherever they go. For children, this bias directly impacts their schooling. Despite decades of effort, schools continue to be highly segregated by race and income, and urban housing patterns have made schools more segregated now than in the 1960s. Schools with high populations of students of color and low-income students tend to have fewer resources, fewer strong teachers, and narrower curricula. Students of color also face unfair discipline practices, especially young black boys who are suspended or expelled at disproportionate rates. Here, in our country, school policies can lead to increased incarceration rates and deny liberty for people of color.
Happiness. The majority of new mothers in the United States must rush back to work after having a child because they have no paid leave benefit. This means they have little time to recover, bond with their child, and get acclimated to their new normal. Our country is the only one of the 41 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that does not guarantee paid parental leave. While the Family and Medical Leave Act allows for unpaid leave, most families cannot afford to be without income for long. Meanwhile, almost 2.5 million children experience homelessness each year, and even with the expansion of health coverage via Medicaid, CHIP and the ACA, nearly four million children were uninsured in 2017. Most families lack access to high-quality child care and pre-K programs. Only 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers are served by the federal government's Early Head Start program, and less than half of eligible pre-kindergarteners are able to attend Head Start pre-K.
To be sure, there are bright spots. Take California: Governor Newsom appointed Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and expert on ACEs, to be the state's first Surgeon General. Newsom’s budget includes support for trauma-informed child care for children in California's foster system. Several states, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, and Virginia, have banned or limited the use of suspension and expulsion for children in pre-K and early elementary school. And, eight states and Washington, DC, (Oregon as of July 1st) have passed paid family and medical leave laws.
As the United States of America enters its 244th year, we should celebrate what makes our country strong—our diversity, our freedoms, and our democracy. But we also should reaffirm our commitment to making America a place where truly everyone can exercise their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This 4th of July, instead of just eating hot dogs and watching fireworks, I challenge us to demand our leaders earn the consent of all the governed and to work to affect the safety and happiness of all people.