In his ground breaking book When Corporations rule the World, David Korten portrays the pernicious inequalities in the USA (see p. 105). He quotes from a CBS TV interview with a sharecropper’s child in Selma, Alabama:

“Do you eat breakfast before school?”
“Sometimes, sir. Sometimes I have peas.”
“And when you get to school, do you eat?”
“No, sir.”
“Isn’t there any food there?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Why don’t you have it?”
“I don’t have the 35 cents.”
“What do you do while the other children eat lunch?”
“I just sits there on the side” (his voice breaking).
“How do you feel when you see the other children eating?”
“I feel ashamed” (crying).

The gap between rich and poor in the United States—as in most of the world—has been rapidly widening in the last decade. As the income disparity grows between the ruling and working classes, and as the real earnings of lower and middle class workers steadily decline, new laws give more and more tax breaks to the rich while burdening the poor with mounting taxes.

Today one in five children in the US lives in poverty and the proportion keeps growing. Since the early 1980’s, conservative legislation began to methodically roll back the safety net built over the last 60 years, which guaranteed every child in America—including the poorest—a bare minimum of food, shelter, education and health care. But now the attack against children in America is accelerating.

This year the conservative majority in the USCongress, led by Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, are promoting legislation which will mean that:

  • 2.2 million children will be dropped from the school lunch and breakfast program-the only nourishing meals many children get all day; *

  • 5.6 million children will lose basic income assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children-often the only income of poor families; *

  • 6.6 million children will lose health care coverage. *

* Figures from the Children’s Defense Fund

These permanent changes in the law—together with cutbacks in successful programs like Head Start—will push millions of children deeper into poverty and leave them at a greater disadvantage, even as the total wealth (GNP) of the nation increases.

The House of Representatives has already voted to cut Head Start by $137 million, a cut that in 1996 will deny 48,000 additional children its comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and social services. Such cuts are dime-wise and dollar-foolish, for they undermine the future of the country: its children. Because of the developmental stunting and undernutrition that often accompany poverty:

  • Children who spend the first 5 years of life in poverty score 9 points lower in intelligence tests than children whose families were never poor.

  • Poor children are 1.3 times more likely than non-poor children to have learning difficulties.

  • Low-income children are twice as likely as middle income children and 11 times as likely as wealthy children to drop out of secondary school after age 16.

The cuts in these programs to benefit needy children are being made supposedly to reduce the huge debt of the federal government. But rather than depriving defenseless children it would make far more sense to slash the inflated military budget, or to reduce the current inflated subsidies to big business—especially subsidies and tax write-offs to health-destroying business such as the tobacco industry.

It is unconscionable that in the wealthiest of the world’s nations—where obesity and overconsumption are growing problems—health care, adequate food, and education are not among children’s fundamental rights. What is amazing is that more Americans—especially among the poor and middle classes—have not mounted a stronger protest against this elitist, grossly undemocratic rollback of the socially progressive legislation designed to guarantee that all people’s basic needs are met. It appears that social activist Noam Chomsky is right when he accuses the mass media of ‘Manufacturing Consent.’ (See Chomsky’s book by that title.)

Unfortunately the current draconian rollback of socially progressive laws and long established humanitarian imperatives is not limited to the United States. The US government-military-industrial complex, with the help of the international financial institutions (World Bank and IMF), has imposed a globalized market model of development which places profits for the rich before the needs of the poor. As a result, humanity and the global environment are in peril.

It is time for ordinary people to wake up, to recognize the current barbaric nightmare of institutionalized greed for what it is, and to demand government and legislation that protect the basic needs and rights of all people-not least of all our children. But for this to happen, a new people-to-people network of communication is required, one that by-passes the lies and distortions of the mass media and helps ordinary people make an honest analysis of factors and forces that govern and determine their lives.

For this, all of us need to become better informed. We need to join groups that are actively critical of current regressive socio-political trends, and which propose more human, egalitarian and sustainable alternatives. And we need to help awaken more people to the crucial issues at stake.

Sources of information:

  • For those concerned about the rights and well-being of children in the USA, we suggest you write for more information and possibilities for action to the Children’s Defense Fund, 25 E Street NW, Washington DC 20001.

  • For a socio-economic perspective on our current global crises and for possible alternative paradigms for development, a good place to start would be David Korten’s new book, When Corporations Rule the World, or perhaps some of the writings of Noam Chomsky. Or subscribe to Third World Resurgence, New Internationalist, or Z Magazine.

  • For insights into forces and factors affecting health policies and the health of populations, especially children, we hope that our forthcom ing book Questioning the Solution will be a useful resource.