CINCINNATI – Jonathan Ferrera, 18, knows what poverty feels like. He’s had times when his family has worried about going hungry or getting evicted from their home. When his mom lost her job, his family avoided the public shelter by moving in with his grandparents.
A rising senior and the vice president of his New York City high school, the earnest and unfailingly courteous Ferrera doesn’t know yet where he wants to go to college. But he does know exactly what career he wants to pursue: environmental engineering, where he can help poor kids grow up surrounded by green space, not just commercial buildings.
Ferrera is among 1,500 young people from 280 cities around the country who arrived in busloads on Sunday, some traveling overnight, to attend a four-day training and conference in Cincinnati devoted to improving the welfare of children in America. Some 3,000 people, including civil rights icons, researchers and public officials, are expected to attend the gathering organized by the advocacy and research organization the Children’s Defense Fund, at a time that the organization’s founder, Marian Wright Edelman, calls pivotal for the country.
Edelman’s assessment is supported by two separate reports released in the last few days by the Associated Press and the Washington, D.C.-based research organization the Urban Institute, which outline a sobering juxtaposition in America: This year, the percentage of poor people in the country will likely reach its highest level since the 1960s, while government spending on programs for children fell for the first time in 30 years last year and is expected to continue shrinking this year.
In the next 10 years, in fact, federal spending on children is expected to fall from 10 percent of the federal budget to about 8 percent, according to Kids’ Share, the Urban Institute’s annual report on federal expenditures on children.
The need for perseverance in the face of such inequality was raised repeatedly on Sunday, the first day of the conference, at an interfaith spiritual service where religious leaders including Christian, Muslim and Sikh, read from their scriptures and prayed for justice in the world.
The Rev. Otis Moss Jr., who fought for civil rights next to Martin Luther King Jr., told the audience that it had taken 389 years, from 1619 when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown, to 2008, for the country to elect its first black president.
“And you’re ready to give up because of two years of the Tea Party?” he asked.
The organizers’ goals for what is to happen after the conference are as wide-reaching and ambitious as the title of its opening session Monday morning: “Why We Must End Massive Economic Inequality in America and Rescue Our Children from Epidemic Poverty, Unjust Budget Cuts and a Vanishing American Dream.” Speakers at the panel include David Ellwood, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning economist and the author of the book, “The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.”
Other discussions Monday include sessions on ways to address the needs of the 1.7 million children – 45 percent of whom are black – who have a parent in prison or jail; ways to help African-American children who are living in single-parent homes without a father; and a panel addressing the importance of a quality middle school education for African-American boys. Speakers for that panel include the president of the historically black Morehouse College, Rev. Dr. Robert Michael Franklin.
The last session on Monday, a discussion with civil rights icons like James Lawson, who led the development of a nonviolent strategy with Martin Luther King Jr., and Myrlie Evers-Williams, former chairperson of the NAACP board and the widow of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, summarizes a very real worry for many of the child welfare advocates gathered in Cincinnati: “Where Has All the Progress Gone? Are We Moving Backwards in a Second Post-Reconstruction Era? How Do We Move Forward Again?”
They’re pinning their hopes on young people like Ferrera, who appears eager to rise to the challenge, although he admits he’s not clear on what exactly is required of him. He wants to help his peers believe in themselves, he said.
“Hold on to your dreams,” Ferrera said. “Your dreams are very valuable and must be heard.”
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