Activist Marian Wright Edelman speaks about child poverty

Speaker Marian Wright Edelman gives the Moral Voices lecture, organized by Tufts Hillel and Tisch College at Cohen Auditorium on Feb. 27. (Ray Bernoff / The Tufts Daily)

Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, spoke about American citizens’ obligation to combat the overwhelming presence of child poverty in a mostly full Cohen Auditorium on Monday evening.

The talk was this year’s Merrin Moral Voices Lecture, in partnership with the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Distinguished Speaker Series.

Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel Rabbi Jeffrey Summit opened the evening by talking about the necessity of children having access to proper healthcare, education and opportunities.

Co-Chair of Moral Voices Isabel Merrin explained that this year’s talk will center on children’s advocacy. Merrin, a senior, also listed Edelman’s various accolades, which include over 100 honorary degrees, a Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In Edelman’s speech, she reflected on the current state of national inequality, noting that the United States is divided between haves and have-nots. She encouraged the audience to decide what kind of future they want to see at this important junction in history and what legacy they want to leave behind.

“Will our era and lifetime be remembered by how many material things we can manufacture, advertise, sell and consume?” she asked. “Or by our discovery, our more lasting, non-material measures of success?”

Lamenting the prevalence of guns and gun-related deaths in this nation, Edelman said that regulating guns should be at the top of our agenda. She talked about the United States’ high child mortality rates and our responsibility as people to fix this situation.

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured,” Edelman said, quoting French philosopher Albert Camus. “But we can reduce the number of tortured children.

Edelman spoke about the necessity of directing the nation’s resources toward helping children. She said that, in the United States, half of all black babies are born into poverty. 

In addition, compared to other nations with developed economies, the United States has one of the highest percentages of child poverty, ranking 34th out of 35, Edelman said. She cited failed policies as the cause of this, and she called for a movement to confront the hypocrisy inherent in the United States’ poverty problem, in spite of its stated commitment to equality.

Edelman suggested various policies that governments could implement to combat the issue of child poverty, such as housing vouchers, tax expenditures, early investments in children and school snack programs. She explained that the money for these programs could be easily raised through actions such as increasing taxes on the rich, closing tax loopholes and decreasing military expenditures.

“These policies, which would cost $77.2 billion a year — and a bargain at that — could be implemented immediately, improving the lives and the futures of millions of children and eventually saving taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars annually,” Edelman said. “Poverty is simply too expensive to continue.”

Edelman said that the United States needs to uphold the values of the Declaration of Independence, which maintains certain inalienable rights for citizens. She said that it is now time to make sure that the truths that it lists apply to children of all social classes and races.

“A nation that does not stand for children does not stand for anything,” Edelman said.

Turning to the story of Noah’s Ark, Edelman discussed a few key lessons from the biblical story. She emphasized that everybody is figuratively in the same boat, so people must plan ahead, disregard critics and keep in mind that the Ark was built by amateurs.

Edelman also argued that social and political movements brew over time and are never top-down. She called on each person to strive to make a difference in their own community by aiding collective resistance.

“Never has there been a greater need and a greater call for moral voices in all our institutions,” Edelman said.

Edelman also advocated for exposing children to great thinkers and moral leaders in their schools. She said that people have an obligation to ensure that the nation always moves forward rather than backwards. In this time of political uncertainty, Edelman encouraged those with the privilege of being free enough to speak out to exercise their power and challenge the government to tackle child poverty.

“We do not have a child problem in America,” Edelman said. “We have a profound adult problem.”