Marianne Williamson: If We Want a Prosperous America Tomorrow, Take Care of Our Children Today | Opinion

If, as Nelson Mandela said, "The true character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children," then America needs to take a good look at itself.

But don't get me wrong. Children of well-to-do parents are doing fine in America. A vast majority of them have food, health care, shelter, a decent education, cultural opportunities, and enough emotional and psychological support to set them up for a successful life.

Now let's consider how relatively few children that is, compared with the child population in our country.

A record 14 million children in America are not getting enough to eat, according to a study conducted in June by the Brookings Institution. And even before the pandemic, in the richest nation in the world, about 13 million children went to school hungry every day. A report from January found more than 1.5 million public school students were experiencing homelessness, the highest number in over a dozen years. Millions of children attend classrooms where there aren't adequate means to teach them to read by the time they're 8 years old—in which case, their chances of high school graduation are drastically decreased and chances of incarceration are drastically increased.

Millions of our kids (40 percent of all girls in Chicago public schools, for instance) show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the COVID-19 crisis is quickly making that worse. Schools across the country are working to adopt "trauma-informed" teaching methods. Meanwhile, there is an average of only one school counselor for every 455 public school students. And let's consider the psychological and emotional effects of going to school each day well aware of school shootings and worried that the weird antisocial kid in class might want to kill you.

Make no mistake about it, many of these children will be broken human beings 20 years from now. They will form petri dishes of societal despair and dysfunction. So who are we trying to destroy here—our children or ourselves? Every time you see a touching news segment about someone who "escaped" a disadvantaged childhood, ask yourself why, in America, the condition of so many children is something they would need to "escape."

None of this is necessary, and all of it is an indictment of a society on the verge of losing its soul. What is essentially collective child neglect is now infused into our functioning. And why? For such obvious, immoral reasons. Our political system follows the corporate money—and corporate money doesn't usually care for someone else's children. You might have gone to a fundraiser recently where a huge bank or corporation gave $25,000 to a food shelter. But trust me, that was pocket change compared with the tax cuts those corporations have received at what is essentially the expense of the hungry. No amount of private charity can compensate for a basic lack of social justice.

When people say the government should be run like a business, tell them that in many ways it already is—and that's the problem. Our government should not be run like a business; it should be run like a family. A business might rightfully put its short-term profits first, but a functional family puts the well-being of its children first. That's not a relative truth; it's a moral absolute.

But children aren't old enough to vote, so they're not a political constituency. They're not old enough to work, so they wield no financial leverage. They're not old enough to lobby for themselves, so no one advocates for them unless we do. And thus the poor among them form a huge portion of the invisible sufferers in America today. They're there, but their cries aren't heard. They're there, but their tears aren't seen. Their potential is as great as that of any other children, but we're letting them fall through the cracks of our own neglect. They're a ticking time bomb, but we act as if they're not our concern, so we can just keep dancing.

Campaigning for president, I met extraordinary experts in childhood development all over the country. From nutrition to health care to neuropsychology to emotional development, we have all the expertise we need, right here in America, to assuage this humanitarian disaster. Yet everywhere I went, when I asked such professionals in community wraparound services, trauma-informed education, social work, etc., how many of the children who need their services they're able to get to, I heard an eerily common number almost everywhere I went: about 10 percent. Such efforts are so under-funded, under-resourced and uncoordinated that we can hardly keep up with the most severely of severely troubled children. Most professionals would agree we're not great at even doing that.

A Mother and Her Children
A mother walks her children through a fountain on a warm summer day on July 12 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Gary Hershorn/Getty

There is one agency in the federal government specifically dedicated to child welfare: Administration for Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services. Its budget is $58 billion. When compared to the $738 billion we'll spend on the military this year or the 2017 tax cut set to add an estimated $2.2 trillion to the national debt, it's obvious what the problem is. How a society spends its money is a sure sign of where its values lie.

We need fundamental change in relation to our children, not simply incremental change. The first thing we need to do is end the way we primarily fund education through property taxes, ensuring that rich kids will get a better education and poor kids will get a subpar education. For the richest country in the world to withhold a high-quality education from any child is a passive form of oppression. Every public school in America should be a palace of culture, learning and the arts.

We now know things about the brain development of a child before the age of 8 that completely upends our understanding of how to create a successful life. Nothing would more radically change the trajectory of our country's future over the next 20 years than if we were to front-end our resources toward children from birth to 17 years old. If you want an amazingly abundant, prosperous society a few years from now, we should take much better care of our children today.

No one doubts what any of us would do for our own children, but now we must stand for everyone's children. We need a Cabinet-level position, a Department of Children and Youth, to even begin to get this problem under control. American women especially have a unique role to play here. For our system was designed before women had a voice in the public realm, and raising children was deemed to just be "women's work." But we certainly have a voice now, and we need to raise it on behalf of every mother's child. In any advanced mammalian species that survives and thrives, a common characteristic is the fierce behavior of the adult female of the species when she senses a threat to her cubs.

Ours are threatened now, and we need to get fierce.

Marianne Williamson is a Newsweek columnist, best-selling author, political activist and spiritual thought leader. She is founder of Project Angel Food and co-founder of the Peace Alliance, and was the first candidate in the 2020 presidential primary to make reparations a pillar of her campaign.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.