On the day he died, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called his mother to give her his next Sunday's sermon title: "Why America May Go to Hell." In his 1968 call for a poor people's campaign, he warned, "America is going to hell if we don't use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life."
As Christians have recently reflected on the birth of the most famous poor baby in history, imagine God seeing our very wealthy family blessed with six children. Five of them have enough to eat and comfortable warm bedrooms. One does not. She is often hungry and cold. On some nights, she has to sleep on the streets or in a shelter and even be taken away from her neglectful family and placed in foster care or a group home, with strangers.
Imagine this rich family giving five of its children nourishing meals three times a day, but sending the sixth child to school hungry, with only one or two meals.
Imagine this very wealthy family making sure five of its children get all of their shots, regular health checkups, and immediate access to health care when illness strikes, but ignoring the sixth child, who is plagued by chronic respiratory infections and painful toothaches, which sometimes abscess and kill for lack of a physician.
Imagine this family sending five of their children to good preschools and making sure they have music and swimming lessons but sending the sixth child to unsafe daycare with untrained caregivers responsible for too many children or leaving her alone.
Imagine five of the children living with books in family that is able to read to most of its children every night, but leaving the other child unread to, untalked and unsung to, unhugged, or propped before a television screen or video game that feeds him violence and sex and racially-and gender-charged messages, interrupted only by ceaseless ads for material things beyond the child's grasp.
Imagine this family sending most of their children to high-quality schools in safe neighborhoods with enough books and computers and labs and well-prepared teachers, but sending the sixth child to a crumbling school building with peeling ceilings and leaks and lead and asbestos and old, old booksâand not enough of themâand undertrained teachers with low expectations.
Imagine most of the family's children being excited about learning, and looking forward to finishing high school, going to college, and getting a job, but the sixth child falling further and further behind grade level, not being able to read, wanting to drop out of school, and being suspended and expelled, because no one has taught him to read and compute. And no one has diagnosed his attention deficit disorder or treated his health and mental health problems or helped him keep up.
Imagine five of the children engaged in sports and music and arts, in after-school activities and summer camps, but the sixth child hanging out with dubious peers or going home alone because Mom and Dad are working, in prison, or on drugs and alcohol, leaving him alone or on the streets during nonschool hours for weeks and months, at risk of being sucked into illegal activities and the prison pipeline or killed in our gun-saturated nation.
This is our American family today, where one in six, 13 million, of our children lives in poverty in the richest nation on earth, more than 40 percent in extreme poverty. This is not a stable, healthy, economically sensible, or just family. Our failure to invest in all our children before they get sick, or drop out of school, get pregnant, or get into trouble is costly. Every year that we let 13 million children live in poverty costs $500 billion in lost productivity, crime, and health expenses.
As our political leaders ponder our nation's choices, let them remember the millions of children living in poverty and extreme poverty and without health coverage. Let's put their needs first and not last. Our economic futures depend on it and so does our nation's soul.
Marian Wright Edelman, whose new book is The Sea is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, is president of the Children's Defense Fund.