The Church and Public Policy for Children

Adopted by the House of Delegates, North Carolina Council of Churches, October 29, 1996

The condition of children in our society must be a special and urgent concern for churches.  From a biblical point of view, children are a blessing from God (Genesis 15:1), and poor children are seen as objects of God’s special care (Psalm 68:5).  In the gospels, Jesus is presented as one who welcomed and treasured children (Matthew 18:1-5, Luke 9:46-48).

The church has a direct responsibility to nurture children of the family of faith and to provide services for children and families in special need.  But the church also has a concern for the children of the entire society and, thus, for social policies that affect them.

For several years, much attention has been given to the perilous condition of children in our society.  Political, religious, and civic leaders; child advocacy groups; social scientists; journalists; writers; and governments have recognized the problems, issued warnings, and called for remedies.  In spite of all of this, the situation worsens.  Children continue to be the most seriously disadvantaged group in our society.  Public policies enacted in recent days and years have not adequately addressed the problems and, in my instances, are sure to cause injury.  The words that Sylvia Hewlett wrote in 1991 remain true today:  “Compared with other rich countries, children in the US are much more likely to die before their first birthday, to live in poverty, to be abandoned by their fathers, and to be killed before they reach the age of 25.”

Poverty

The poverty rate among children continues to be high – 21.8% nationwide (compared to 14% in 1969).  For children under six – 25.1% are poor.  Almost half of Black and Latino children are poor.  Of all poor children, 61% are White.  Sixty-two percent are in working families.  The figures for North Carolina are very similar, which means that of the state’s 1.7 million children, more than one out of five live in poverty.  And about one out of four children under five is poor.  Poor children are more likely than others to be hungry, have health problems, live in substandard housing, fail in school, and become pregnant.

The United State is the only industrialized nation that tolerates this level of deprivation among its children. American children are twice as likely to be poor as Canadian children, 3 times as likely to be poor a British children, 4 times as likely to be poor as French children, and 7 to 13 times as likely to be poor as German, Dutch, and Swedish children.  A new UNICEF study reports that “the average low-income child in the other (17) industrialized countries is a third better off than the average low-income American child.  At the same time, the US is home to the world’s richest children.

Hunger

Hunger is an obvious companion to poverty.  Bread for the World reports that 29% of US children under the age of 12 is hungry or at risk of hunger.  The food stamp program increases the quality of poor children’s diets by 20% to 40%.  Children make up more than half of food stamp recipients.  The program has just been cut in the name of welfare reform.

Health

The infant mortality rate, a key indicator of social well-being, continues to be very high in the US.  It is closely linked to the inadequacy of prenatal care and nutrition among pregnant women.  The US ranks 23rd among developed nations in infant mortality.  North Carolina ranks 43rd in the nation.  In both the nation and the state, African American babies are more than twice as likely to die at birth than White babies.

The number of children without health insurance continues to increase from 8.2 million in 1987 to 10 million in 1994.  Children continue to lose employer-based health insurance coverage as employers drop all coverage or end dependent coverage or increase employees’ share of the premiums for dependents.  Since 1987, some 750,000 children a year have lost private coverage.  In North Carolina in 1994, over 283,000 children lacked health insurance.

Education

American children are at or near the bottom in most international surveys measuring educational achievement among industrial nations.  Little progress has been made over the past five years. Generally, the students who have the most to begin with – the most affluent neighborhoods, the most highly educated parents, and the most discretionary resources to invest in educational “extras” – also have teachers with the most expertise and better-equipped schools.  Several 1995 reports document serious growing differences in high-wealth and high-poverty schools in their students’ access to computer technology and to books and laboratory equipment.  While 44% of students in rural school districts and 47% in poor urban districts lack resources for learning math, only 15% of students in the wealthiest school districts lack such resources.

SAT scores in North Carolina have gradually improved as the state moved from last in the nation in 1989 to 48th in 1996.  (Fifty-nine percent of North Carolina seniors took the SAT in 1996 – a relatively high percentage.) Within North Carolina, SAT scores range from 1042 in Wake County to 783 in Hertford County.  Many North Carolina youth fail to complete high school.  The graduation rate in 1993-94 was 64.4%, a slight decline from the previous year.

Child Care

The need for affordable and good quality child care continues to be urgent.  Over 60% of women and children and 57% of women with children under six are in the labor force.  The statewide market rate for child care in North Carolina is more than $3,800 per year.  Only one in seven child care centers and one in ten family child care homes are of good enough quality to enhance a child’s development, according to one national study.  Low and moderate-income families especially face great struggles in the search for good and affordable child care.

Some progress is being made in North Carolina, but still over 17,000 children are currently on the waiting lists or child care subsidy.  Income eligibility limits for subsidized care are so low that only very poor families can get help.  North Carolina standards are among the worst in the nation.  Low wages for child care teachers lead to a 40% annual turnover.  Weak child care capacity in rural areas means few options for working rural parents.  Recent “welfare reforms” which intend to put “welfare mothers” to work will increase the need for child care centers.

Abuse

A total of 3.1 million children were reported abused or neglected in 1994, about double the number reported in 1984.  About half of these reports resulted in confirmed findings of maltreatment.  In North Carolina, child abuse and neglect reports are leveling off after steady increases in the 1980’s, but the numbers are still alarming – 95,811 in fiscal year 1993-94.  Last year, 34 children died as a result of suspected or confirmed abuse and neglect.

The material above does not present a total picture of children in the US, but it does provide sufficient indication that many children – especially, though not exclusively, from low and moderate-income families – are in serious difficulty.  Action is urgently needed.

Principles

The following are principals for public policy on behalf of children and their welfare:

  1. The well-being of children is a collective, social responsibility.  Parents have the primary responsibility, but they need the support of the larger community.
  2. Strong families are essential to the well-being of children, but society can provide tools and assistance to families to enhance their efforts.  Two-parent families are usually better for children, but cultural and economic forces are making the single-parent family more common. Public policy should encourage intact two-parent families, but also supply strong support to the especially vulnerable single-parent households.
  3. In the allocation of public resources, priority should be given to children and their    needs at the state and national levels.  Our nation can afford to radically reduce poverty and deprivation among children as we have among the elderly and as has other developed nations of the world.
  4. Investment in children during the early stages of life is the best way to diminish expensive social ills that come later if needs are not met, social ills such as: crime, teenage child-bearing, unhealthy babies, substance abuse, school failure, and welfare dependency.
  5. Insuring income security for families with children should be one of the primary goals of public policy.
  6. All children, regardless of circumstance of birth, should have access to basic social good: decent shelter, adequate food and nutrition, health care, and quality education.

Specific Measures

A great variety of measures are needed to address the problems indicated above and to implement the principles.  Below are a few measures that will be before the NC General Assembly and which we endorse:

  • Continue Smart Start and expand it to all counties of the state.  The program is designed to provide quality child care, child health, and family support services for all children under six in North Carolina.
  • Expand Child Day Care Subsidy for Working Families by increasing the amount of funds available for child care subsidy, increasing the income ceiling for eligibility so that more working poor families will be eligible for help, requiring that all user families participate in the cost of child care, and paying child care providers rates that reflect the actual level of care.
  • Expand the Maternal Outreach Program.  This program provides home visit to families at risk of abuse and neglect in order to help them improve parenting skills.
  • Continue and expand Support Our Students, which aims to reduce juvenile crime through educational after-school programs.
  • Fund Non-Medicaid Maternity Care Coordinators.  This program serves low-income pregnant women who do not qualify for Medicaid by providing case management and some health coverage. Such prenatal care reduces infant mortality and helps prevent serious health problems associated with pregnancy and birth.
  • Provide funding for the NC Child Medical Evaluation Program.  This program assists abused and neglected children by ensuring that needed medical and mental health evaluations are available to Departments of Social Services when they are investigating reports.
  • Increase funding for low-wealth school districts.
  • Continue funding for Teacher’s Education and Compensation Helps.  This program maintains education and compensation initiatives for child care teachers.
  • Strengthen the Family Preservation Program.  This program provides intensive in-home services for families in trouble to keep families together and enable them to function more healthily.
  • Develop ministries which focus on children’s issues which are intentionally family-centered.  Local churches are community-based and are ideal settings for addressing the needs of children in general and problems affecting children in particular.  Children in trouble always have disturbed families, sometimes dysfunctional.  Unfortunately, the stereotype of the typical local church is that of one which screens out families that are hurting.  This stereotype causes troubled families within congregations to drop out as problems escalate, and troubled families outside the church are rarely on prospect lists.

We call upon local churches to confront this negative stereotype and to overcome it to the end that families in pain may be ministered to and children may have the benefits of a nurturing community.

Resources
Wasting America’s Future, Children’s Defense Fund.
Children’s Index: 1995, NC Child Advocacy Institute.
The State of America’s Children: Yearbook 1996, Children’s Defense Fund.
Policy Statement on Church and Public Policy Advocacy, NC Council of Churches, 1992.
North Carolina Council of Churches North Carolina Council of Churches

The Council enables denominations, congregations, and people of faith to individually and collectively impact our state on issues such as economic justice and development, human well-being, equality, compassion and peace, following the example and mission of Jesus Christ. Learn more about our work here: www.ncchurches.org/about

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