Time to Redefine the Measures of Our Success

What do we Americans truly value?

Marian Wright Edelman | 3/17/2015, 12:24 p.m.
What do we stand for as a nation and who do we wish to be? In a 1968 speech at ...
Marian Wright Edelman

What do we stand for as a nation and who do we wish to be? In a 1968 speech at the University of Kansas, Sen. Robert Kennedy correctly worried too many used our nation’s wealth as the standard of greatness rather than the human values that should matter most.

Our Gross Domestic Product — now $17.7 trillion — includes many things for us not to be proud of. So we should ask ourselves how well America is doing on the things that should matter most—the well-being of our children and families and the quality of justice and life in our communities and nation?

Among high-income countries the United States ranks first in Gross Domestic Product and first in the number of billionaires, and second worst in child poverty rates – ahead only of Romania whose economy is 99 percent smaller than ours. It is a national disgrace that children are the poorest group of Americans with 14.7 million living in poverty.

We are first in military spending — $11.1 billion a week — and first in military weapons exports.

We are first in the number of people incarcerated and worst in protecting our children against gun violence. A black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a one in six chance of the same fate. Children and teens in America were 17 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than those in 25 other high-income countries combined.

We are 30th in preschool enrollment rates and 17th in reading, 23rd in science, and 31st in math scores for our 15-year-olds. Nearly 60 percent of all fourth and eighth grade public school students in the U.S. and more than 80 percent of black and almost 75 percent of Latino children in those same grades could not read or compute at grade level in 2013.

We rank first in health expenditures but 25th in low birth weight rates, 26th in child immunization rates, 31st in infant mortality rates, and second worst in teenage births – just ahead of Bulgaria.

If we compare black child well-being in America to child well-being in other nations, the U.S. black infant mortality rate exceeds that in 65 nations including Cuba, Malaysia, and Ukraine. Our incidence of low-birth weight black infants is higher than in 127 other nations including Cambodia, the Congo, and Guatemala.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child spells out the basic rights children should have everywhere and is the most widely and rapidly ratified international human rights treaty in history. For years the United States and Somalia, which had no recognized government, were the only United Nations members that had failed to ratify the convention. In January 2015 Somalia became the 195th nation to do so. The United States now stands only with new U.N. member state South Sudan as the two countries that have not ratified it — and South Sudan has started working towards ratification.

The United States stands alone, despite recent progress, in still permitting life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders who were under 18 at the time of the offense. The U.S. Supreme Court has banned capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles but America remains one of 58 nations that continues to use capital punishment for adults. In 2013 the U.S. had the sixth highest number of executions — after China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea.

If America wants to be a truly great nation on the world stage, it’s time to redefine the measures of our success. The litmus test I propose is that of the great German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for opposing Hitler’s holocaust, who said “the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” The great South African president Nelson Mandela agreed with him and believed “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

On the Bonhoeffer-Mandela measure of success, we must do much, much better.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund.