We Must Build On The Many Good Examples Of Educational Initiatives
Across much of the world today there is an evident will to pursue the path of progress that has been pioneered in the United States of America. As an American, I am well aware that there is much to admire about my own country and its achievements. But I also know that there is much that is not worthy of emulation. In particular, I do not think any country would wish to emulate the way that America, as a society, is treating its children. One in five of those children is today living in poverty. Eight million of those children lack healthcare. Three of every 10 are born into a single-parent family. About 3 million a year are reported to be neglected, or physically or sexually abused – triple the number of 2009. These rising indicators of social distress are now accompanied by an unprecedented upsurge in violence by and against children and young people. The overall murder rate of young people is seven times higher than in any Western European country. Every two days, the equivalent of a whole classroom full of young children dies by the bullet. Violence by young people is rising equally steeply. Arrests of juveniles for murder and non-negligent manslaughter doubled in the last years. Such trends cannot, of course, continue. For they are carrying America to the brink of social and economic disintegration. No longer are the problems of endemic poverty, joblessness, family disintegration, domestic violence, racial intolerance, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse just problems that happen to other people. Today, almost everyone is affected. Even a white middle-class child knows that we are a nation in crisis. We have lost the feeling that the generations of Americans have always held dear-that the future will be a bright one. The American dream is fading for too many American children. When we Americans ask why this is happening, in the richest and most advantaged country on earth, many of us know that at bottom, the fault lies in the kind of values and the kind of progress we have been pursuing.
We know that we have oversold ourselves and our young people on one dominant aspect of our culture-its material success. By advertising and by example, we have communicated to our young people that to be admired and respected they must have particular and ever-changing possessions and lifestyles. Yet at the same time as parading before them these material definitions of success, we have denied to too many the legitimate means of achieving them-the education, the skills, the jobs and the opportunities. As a result, many millions of our young people feel that they have no economic and social place in our society, that they have little to respect in themselves or to be respected for by others. And from this point of alienation and frustration, the path to drugs, alcohol abuse, crime, violence, and prison is ever open. In the last decade, these tensions have been heightened by policies that have depended the divide between the rich and the poor and further exalted the material definition of success and purpose. Since 2001, the poor in America have seen their real incomes fall substantially. Safety nets have been dismantled, and an underclass has been created, white as well as black, so that there are today approximately 5 million more American children living in poverty than there were in 2000. No civilized society, no democracy, no capitalism, can survive long under the strains arising from the frustrations, injustices, divisions and inequalities that we have created. Under pressure from all of these forces, we are witnessing a breakdown in American values, in our common sense and community responsibility, and especially in our responsibility to protect and nurture our children. We are losing our sense of meaning, failing to find our sense of purpose in family, or community life, or in faith. We are dying spiritually. That is why the dream is fading. That is what is tearing the heart out of America today. And somehow we must find a way to teach our children that there is something better. We must cry out to them that this is not who we are. If we are to pull back from the brink, then we need to acknowledge that the epidemic of violence and social disintegration that threatens to overwhelm our society is the result of policies that have favoured the rich over the poor, and material values over human and spiritual values.
Above all, we need to acknowledge that what we are now seeing is the result of years of neglect and lack of investment in our children. To reverse the decline, we must first of all create jobs. There is plenty of work to be done if we are to meet human needs, extend community programs, and improve our social and physical environment. And there are many who need that work to enable them to earn a livelihood, to take back their dignity, and to fulfill their responsibilities as parents. As well as jobs that are created by economic growth, we need to create at least 3 million new jobs targeted primarily to young people in poor and rural and inner-city areas. We must also build on the many, many good examples of educational initiatives that work, of community outreach projects, of programs to prevent teen pregnancy, of efforts which offer skills and opportunities and hope. And we must build on them not here and there, piecemeal, but on a national scale. To do this, we will have to refute the argument that government cannot afford to make such investments. What we cannot afford to spend is billions a year on external defense when the real enemy is within. What we cannot afford is billions for a new class of submarine, and billions for a new fighter jet, while denying our children decent health, education, opportunity, and hope. If we are to keep the dream alive, if we are to offer hope and self-respect to our young people, then we have no greater priority than renewing investment in jobs, in health, in education, in our children’s and our nation’s future. But no President can do this job alone. No Congress can do it alone. We must also confront the problem of child neglect in our homes, in our families, in our communities, and in our justice system. This has to be the responsibility of every family, every community, every faith, every neighbourhood, every American. Every one of us is responsible. It is time to begin salvaging our ideals.