Barack Obama won his re-election fight because Americans who are committed to moving forward turned out in record numbers to vote, especially in battleground states.
But we can't go forward unless Congress sits down and makes the hard decisions required to create a just budget that invests in children, and creates jobs for their struggling parents while making sure those who have benefited from huge tax cuts pull their weight.
Exit polls on Election Day made it clear: A clear majority of voters agree that the richest Americans need to pay higher taxes.
Children, the poor, and the middle class cannot afford more devastating cuts and instability as they continue to struggle against hunger, homelessness, joblessness, and loss of summer school and regular school days as a result of this long economic downturn. To move forward, America's security and prosperity depend on our children's ability to drive the economy of the future. If a majority of our kids can't read and compute at grade level, we won't have a strong economy.
Our leaders face crucial budget decisions. They must craft solutions that will protect the already porous safety nets on which so many children and families rely, and invest in the health, early childhood development, and education of our children.
The fundamental principle of protecting children and other vulnerable populations has been a cornerstone of deficit reduction since the bipartisan Balanced Budget Act of 1985. Every automatic budget cut mechanism of the past quarter century has exempted core low-income assistance programs from any cuts triggered when budget targets or fiscal restraint rules were missed or violated.
The American people still strongly support this principle. Last year, a Gallup poll found that 55 percent of Americans oppose cutting spending on anti-poverty programs. A Public Opinion Strategies poll showed even larger numbers of likely voters oppose cuts to Medicaid (73 percent) or education programs (75 percent).
Cutting children from the budget now will cost us all more in the long run.
On the other hand, economists agree that investing in children promotes economic growth. For example, investments in education that raise high school graduation rates have been shown to yield a public benefit of $209,000 per student in higher government revenues and lower government spending, and an economic benefit to the public purse that is 2.5 times greater than the costs.
Children constitute the poorest age group in the United States. More than 16.1 million children in America live in poverty — more than one in five of all children and more than one in three children of color — so special efforts must be made to address the needs of these most vulnerable among us.
Poor children lag behind their peers in many ways beyond income: They are less healthy, trail in emotional and intellectual development, are less likely to graduate from high school and to find steady work as adults, and are more likely to head poor families. Each year we keep these millions of children in poverty costs our nation at least half a trillion dollars in lost productivity, poorer health, and increased crime.
Rather than imposing strict austerity measures without regard for the human consequences, we must invest now in children to prepare them for the future and help create jobs.
Be careful what you cut. If our children aren't ready for tomorrow, neither is America.
Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children's Defense Fund. Distributed by OtherWords.