A recent Americans for Tax Fairness press release headline read: “BILLIONAIRE WEALTH GREW BY $845 BILLION, OR 29%, AS AMERICA STRUGGLED THROUGH FIRST SIX MONTHS OF PANDEMIC: While Millions Lost Jobs, Businesses, Health & Lives, Nation’s 643 Richest Saw Their Collective Fortune Leap Nearly 30%.” The report continued: “Needless to say, ordinary workers did not fare as well . . . In fact, this billionaires’ bonanza occurred against a general backdrop of working-class pain: 6.6 million Americans got coronavirus, and almost 200,000 died from it. Over 50 million Americans lost jobs, with nearly 14 million still unemployed. 30 million are collecting unemployment benefits (counting contract workers), up from 1.6 million a year earlier. Nearly 30 million Americans have gone hungry. 12 million Americans have lost employee-sponsored health insurance. Big swaths of business have shut down, including 100,000 restaurants.”
How does this comport with any standards of justice and common decency?! It is hard to believe fortunes have jumped astronomically for the wealthiest while millions of people are suffering including children who already were our poorest Americans pre-pandemic and most vulnerable to harm. Even at the economy’s height with low unemployment, 10.5 million children lived in poverty and millions more children lived in families on the edge—just one missed paycheck or financial shock away from hunger and homelessness and the dreadful stress they bring. In 2019 nearly 4 in 10 American adults didn’t have enough resources on hand to cover an unexpected $400 expense.
Families were working to care for their children but our economy was not working for them with too many having a job that did not guarantee stability or security. Current poverty measures have not kept pace with the cost of living and the latest numbers don’t count the toll of the COVID-19 crisis. Recently released poverty data giving a snapshot of our nation before the pandemic confirmed about 1 in 7 children were poor in 2019. The overwhelming majority of poor children (70.1 percent) lived in working families struggling to make ends meet. Our youngest children were poorest and nearly three-quarters of all poor children were children of color.
The scary pandemic has exacerbated these economic disparities and exposed the fragility of an economy that invests in billionaires before babies, corporations before children, and warships before hard working Americans struggling to pay their bills. Recent Pulse Census data show more than half of adults in households with children say they or another household member have lost employment income since the pandemic began although the billionaires’ wealth increased. Nearly a quarter of adults in households with children are behind on rent and 1 in 7 said their children are not getting enough to eat. The annual cost of the Children’s Defense Fund’s proposed 2019 Ending Child Poverty Now package was $52.3 billion. Congress could fund our plan to cut poverty for 16 years with the same amount of money the richest Americans have racked up since the pandemic began. This is outrageous, insane, and profoundly unjust.
Congress can and must act now to protect millions of children and families left behind. The too small progress in reducing child poverty before the pandemic will be reversed if Congress fails to immediately pass robust COVID relief for families left behind and expand basic programs to help children survive, grow, learn and thrive during and beyond the pandemic. Cash assistance, child allowances, rental and housing support, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and unemployment insurance need to be immediately expanded to help families survive and thrive. Investing in healthy child development will not only help our economy but reduce racial disparities and improve child opportunities in the long run. It’s shameful that our nation permits billionaires to be big winners and poor children big losers. It’s way past time to vote for leaders who will put babies and children ahead of billionaires and wealthy corporations.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund