BaltimoreThis week, some of Baltimore’s youth took to the streets, looting stores, burning buildings and throwing rocks at police in the wake of the death and funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old whose spine was almost completely severed while in the custody of Baltimore police. The youth have been portrayed as thugs and criminals who deserve to be locked up and jailed.

Let’s be clear. We should never condone or tolerate senseless violence, including violence disguised as protests. It demeans our quest for justice for Freddie Gray and the countless other victims of police brutality and a broken criminal justice system that tolerates and perpetuates it. But we must acknowledge that the very police entrusted to protect these youth are the perpetrators of violence against them. We also cannot ignore that these young people are our youth, who just a few short years ago, were our children. They were to be our future business leaders, scientists, innovators, educators, generals, soldiers, physicians and nurses. Their future is being wasted to the ravages of poverty. Their immature and violent actions are cries of the powerless in a society that does not hear them.

West Baltimore, where violence erupted this week and where Freddie Gray was born, raised, and arrested is cloaked in poverty. Stripped of economic opportunity for decades, 50 percent of its residents are unemployed. One-third of its residential housing stands boarded-up and abandoned. In the last decade, 25 percent of the children and youth of this community, age 10 through 17, have been arrested by the same police force that arrested Freddie Gray. For them, the police are not welcomed protectors; some of them are executioners. Violence in this neighborhood is a common occurrence. West Baltimore residents are twice as likely to die of homicide than others in Maryland. Freddie Gray’s short life reflected these tragic realities. His mother, a disabled heroin addict, could not read. According to court records, he was exposed to so much lead poisoning in his childhood home that he and his siblings were incapable of leading functional lives. His lawsuit against the property owner yielded him a monetary settlement so common in West Baltimore that they are called “lead checks.”

As a city, Baltimore has seen significant decline. In this predominately African American city, one-third of its children live in poverty. Nearly one-half of Baltimore residents live below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The unemployment rate for African American men, age 20 to 24, in Baltimore was 37 percent in 2013. Just 1 in 10 African American men in Baltimore hold a college degree. The median income of African Americans in Baltimore is $33,000, roughly one-half that of white men in Baltimore. The tense relationship between the police and the African American community has a long legacy. In the past four years alone, over 100 people have won $5.7 million in court settlements or judgments against the Baltimore police related to allegations of brutality, violence and civil rights violations.

The economic realty for African American children and youth in Baltimore is stark. Their options are limited and largely beyond their control. There are simply too few jobs, non-existent economic opportunities, failing schools and poor academic achievement in an environment that appears to resemble a police state. These conditions breed hopelessness. Sadly, these conditions are not unique to Baltimore; they exist in hundreds of other cities and towns across our nation.

But it does not have to be this way. We can stop wasting our future resources. As President Obama remarked this week, we have the power to solve this “slow-rolling crisis,” if we all consider these kids our kids who are important enough to live in communities without poverty and violence. When we claim these kids as our own and part of our future, we see the imperative to reform our schools so that educators have the proper resources to educate and train our future leaders. We recognize the importance of fully-funding early childhood programs, such as home visiting, quality childcare, which enables parents to work, Head Start, preschool, and other two-generational supports that are critical to the health and development of our children and nation, particularly our most vulnerable children living in concentrated poverty and disadvantage. We consider the Children’s Health Insurance Program as critical to ensure that children have insurance coverage for the full-range of health services needed for their healthy development. And we see the critical need to tackle poverty head-on by adopting a national poverty target, similar to efforts adopted in the United Kingdom, which will set an ambitious mobilizing goal and provide an overarching strategy for current programs to support children and families. Recommendations to meet the target would address eliminating disparate rates of poverty through improving the effectiveness and outcomes of poverty-related programs and services, improving the measure of poverty, expanding eligibility to improve the coordination of service delivery to low-income children and improving the access of low income and unemployed individuals to good jobs.

The children and youth of Baltimore and of every city and town across the nation are our children and youth. They are important enough to live in safe communities free of violence and poverty with quality healthcare, education, housing and nutrition. When we claim all children as worthy of these basic necessities, we lay stake to our future national prosperity.

Claiming #Baltimore’s Children and Youth As Our Own: via @First_Focus Voices for Kids blog #InvestInKids
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Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Learn more about our work on poverty and family economics. 

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