Crucial to the future vitality of a community is its care of children. If we, as we should, imagine the future of Milwaukee based on the overall quality of life afforded its children today, we would have to admit that this is a city in crisis. There are glimmers of hope, but hope is not nearly enough. There must be a large-scale, dedicated effort to focus on alleviating the pain of children who are being left far behind.
Every day, children are born healthy, only to see their potential lost before they can even enter kindergarten. About 43 percent of children under the age of 18 in Milwaukee – or 67,000 kids – are now living in poverty. Of those, 28,000 children are living in extreme poverty. Poverty exacerbates the many ills plaguing our city’s children.
Milwaukee also has one of the nation’s highest infant mortality rates. Babies and young children are not only exposed to domestic violence, they are often its target.
The long-term consequences of childhood trauma are psychological and physical, with the effects of childhood stress lingering on and contributing to higher rates of serious illness later in life. There have been too many parents in this city who have suffered the loss of a child by random and accidental gunshots. The number of infants born with addictive drugs in their systems, both illegal and prescription, is rising at an alarming rate.
Lack of adequate nutrition in the early years cheats a child of his best chance for healthy brain development.
In the past three years, MPS graduation rates have declined to barely 60 percent for the class of 2013. For students with disabilities, the graduation rate is a dismal 15.9 percent.
A study by the Milwaukee Center for Independence several years ago found that the rate of childhood disability in the Milwaukee area was rapidly increasing, further stretching educational, medical and rehabilitative resources.
Our children often search for food, a place to sleep, a warm, loving relationship that they can seek out in the darkest night and when worries overwhelm them. Without food, love and the chance to learn basic preschool skills, our city’s children are on a steep hill where they are unlikely to reach the top.
There can be no single approach to solving the problems of all the children and families who need support in Milwaukee. Coordinated, wide-ranging efforts to improve the quality of life for our city’s children hold the most promise. Smaller, model programs that produce results should be adopted on a wider scale.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation is promoting a “two-generation approach” to simultaneously address the needs of young children at risk and their families. The Foundation recommends alliances among a city’s early education programs and elementary schools, home-visiting programs to connect parents with employment and financial coaching resources, and job-training programs and community colleges to move families toward financial stability.
Progress is being made on many fronts. The concerted local campaign to abate teen pregnancy led by the United Way and its community partners has had impressive results, reducing teen birth rates by 50 percent in six years.
Milwaukee Succeeds is mustering the expertise of nearly 300 organizations to work toward the success of the city’s kids, “from cradle to career.” This initiative has concrete, measurable goals and the support of business, academic and nonprofit leaders throughout the area.
With many organizations working on specific aspects of the challenges facing Milwaukee’s children and families, what is needed now is a point person to guide progress on these issues. Elected officials should consider designating a “Champion for Children,” whose role would be to coordinate local initiatives, identify gaps in service and ensure that resources are in place to nurture the potential of our most vulnerable kids. Any commitment to a better future for the city must include a clear and focused effort to help the children who will help shape that future.