A recent article on the challenges our policymakers face in setting spending priorities quoted former Gov. Mark Sanford saying that “some agencies, including Juvenile Justice and Social Services, have a tough time winning more state money because they lack the powerful lobbying interests that other agencies can call on.”
He went on: “There’s no constituency for poor, impoverished kids. They have no one fighting for them.”
Actually, there are good people in our state who fight on behalf of poor, impoverished children every day, and they’ve been doing so for decades.
However, it is true, as Congressman Sanford astutely noted, that they don’t get what they need because “they lack the powerful lobbying interests” that others enjoy. They don’t get the necessary political attention because children don’t contribute to political coffers or go to the polls. Advocates’ voices are drowned out, and impoverished children’s needs are subverted by the voices of well-funded political interest groups with powerful constituencies and capital to expend.
So policymakers wait until there’s a crisis to respond. And in their shortsightedness, special interest groups that garner the attention of legislators and our business-oriented policymakers are ignoring the simple fact that we cannot continue to grow the economy of South Carolina without first breaking the cycle of poverty.
Children’s advocates have been proclaiming for years that we can change the culture of poverty in our state and substantially reduce the need for public services by investing adequate resources in impoverished children’s health and education. But no one listens.
Until we commit to changing the way we do business, there will always be another budget crisis and our policymakers will have to keep putting out fires.
According to the Annie Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report, 844,000 South Carolinians live in poverty; 356,000 children under the age of 18 receive public assistance. The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University tells us that 67 percent of children whose parents do not have a high school degree live in poor families; 40 percent of children whose parents have a high school degree but no college education live in poor families; and 16 percent of children whose parents have some college or more live in poor families. Although a four-year degree is not the panacea, our young people must at a minimum complete high school with the skills they need to pursue a lucrative career.
The children currently living in poverty represent a significant portion of South Carolina’s future workforce. If they are healthy and adequately educated, in 12-16 years these children will become productive citizens who not only contribute to the state’s tax base but pay for their own health care, housing, etc., instead of being dependent on assistance from the state.
There’s also a compelling residual benefit of investing now: Poor kids who see no hope for a prosperous future are much more likely to end up in the Department of Juvenile Justice or the Department of Corrections. The need for Juvenile Justice, Corrections, the Department of Social Services and services provided by other state agencies would be decidedly reduced if we exercised foresight and implemented proven strategies to get these kids through school and into self-sustaining careers. We can break the cycle of poverty now, or we can continue to perpetuate it by ignoring the obvious.
This is an economic issue of gargantuan proportion that negatively impacts us all. Rather than reacting to crisis after crisis that could have been prevented, it would behoove cost-conscience, business-minded policymakers to heed the voices that speak for impoverished kids. They may not have money or powerful constituencies, but they have the key to our state’s future economic well-being.
We can either heed their recommendations, invest now and reap the benefits, or we will pay exponentially more later.
When poor, impoverished children don’t get what they need to help them succeed, our businesses, our state, our social welfare agencies and taxpayers ultimately suffer the consequences. And the costs of ignoring the obvious are escalating every year that our leaders delay.
Ms. Campbell founded the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which, with state support, has helped reduce teen birth rates by 61 percent; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.