|FOR THE CHILDREN...|
September 14, 1999
Continuing our special emphasis on the 2000 campaign, five child and youth advocates discuss their interests in the coming elections.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, another in our series of special emphasis discussions about the 2000 election campaign. As our regular viewers know, we've been asking a variety of individuals and groups what issues they want to hear the presidential candidates address. Jim Lehrer taped this discussion last week.
JIM LEHRER: Tonight, the views of children and youth advocates. Starr
Parker is the president of the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education
in Los Angeles. Virgil Gulker is the executive director of Kids Hope
U.S.A. in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bill Stephney, a media executive,
is a board member of the National Fatherhood Initiative and the National
Urban League. Margaret Brodkin is the executive director of Coleman
Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco. And Steve Culbertson
is the president of Youth Service America.
VIRGIL GULKER: This election, Jim, I think needs to be about children and families, because children and families really are at the heart of America. It's really the soul of America. My concern is-- we have worked with children around the country-- is that growing numbers of these children, like the shooters, I think, at Columbine, really don't feel like they belong. We encountered a six-year-old child recently in Indiana, for example, who had been arrested 25 times for arson. When I asked the elementary school principal why he would do this, the principal responded that this child was "looking for proof that someone cared." That's the story of growing numbers of children and families, I think, in America. My plea is for candidates who have themselves had almost a transforming experience which has put them in touch with children and families in need-- people, Jim, candidates who really have a sense of passion for the people of America and not just its politics.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Stephney, children and family?
BILL STEPHNEY: Children and family and, I think, the larger American society as a whole, that we all have to develop a collective sense of belonging. I think in many respects that the candidates have to articulate a vision of... that of a coach or a manager of a baseball team-- Joe Torre of the Yankees, or Phil Jackson from the Chicago Bulls, now the Los Angeles Lakers-- the ability to galvanize and rally the troops together. A young man walking in Harlem carrying a brown bag stuffed with ice cream shouldn't think that he'll get stopped by cops because he may be a felon. He should feel that in America, he has the freedom to walk from his house to his girlfriend's house with a bag of ice cream because this is his country. And I think there's a growing sense amongst not only young African-American males, but all young people that they do not belong to this society for one reason or another.
JIM LEHRER: How does that translate, Mr. Stephney, into a presidential campaign issue?
BILL STEPHNEY: Well, again, that presidents may not be able to deal with the specific issues of each and every child...alienation or child or young person being marginalized from the society. However, a president can articulate a collective vision for the country that we all belong.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Brodkin, a collective vision for the country, is that what you want a president to do?
MARGARET BRODKIN: Absolutely. But I don't think they can talk about it without talking about the underlying economic issues, particularly the growing gap between rich and poor, and the fact that our children and families raising children are at the bottom of that gap very disproportionately. So I think our parents want to hear what they can do to help their children participate in the economy of this country. They want to hear what's going to be done to make the schools better, to make sure they have affordable housing, to make sure that there is quality child care, to make sure they can get health insurance. I think they want concrete answers that will help them participate in the economy of this country, that is now obviously benefiting the very rich, but not most families raising children.
JIM LEHRER: And all of those specifics that you just mentioned could all fit under one umbrella theme, you think?
MARGARET BRODKIN: Well, certainly. They need to speak to the families raising children, because we all have such a stake in the well-being of our children.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Parker, how do you see what this election should be about?
STARR PARKER: Well, actually I do see that all of those issues can fit under one umbrella issue, and I'd sum it up in two words: Government larceny. And what I have seen out of candidates, as the president of CURE, the Coalition on Urban Renewal and Education, we're very interested and concerned about issues of the poor and issues of children. As a mother, I'm very concerned about the decisions that are being made that will affect my children in particular. But what we've seen out of most political candidates and pundits and experts is more government welfare actually. I mean, we can go beyond this discussion and talk about how the government is monopolizing in education, how they do run a monopoly over schooling. You have welfare in subsidized living. In fact, I was a part of that system, in and out of the welfare state for about seven years to where we simply just sent out checks on the 1st and the 15th. Some people think that that ended with the welfare bill, but yet we still take new applications -- all the way to issues of criminal welfare to where taxpayers subsidize profile defendants and bail them out of jail on their own recognizance, if you will, to where 60 percent never show up in court, and then even to the current debates of government retirement welfare-- retirement welfare which really amounts to a complete and comprehensive exploitation of the poor. How dare us not look at these issues, and the presidential candidates, when it comes to privatization of Social Security, not considering that as a very viable option, when we are confiscating out of people's paychecks a payroll tax that makes it worse for them in terms of economic empowerment, accumulating transfer of wealth, all the way to the rate of return to where black men in this country, if a working black male dies before his 70th birthday in this country, he has accumulated $10,000 that will automatically transfer to a white married female. I think that these are issues that the presidential candidates should look at very seriously, government larceny, and what we can do about abolishing the income tax and allowing for parents and families to make their own decisions on behalf of their children.
JIM LEHRER: So in a word, get the government out of the way is what you're saying?
STARR PARKER: Limited government is the idea of the founders, as well as personal responsibility or what we might term as individual liberty, and allowing the free market system to use the built- in components there to take care of commerce.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Culbertson, what do you think this presidential election should be about?
STEVE CULBERTSON: Well, I think, Jim, we've spent the last 30 years trying to figure out how to distribute wealth fairly and make sure that people receive services. I think that's a good thing, but I think we need to spend the next 30 years thinking how to leverage the resources of the government. You know, we talk about the era of big government is over and the era of big citizenship has begun. I think particularly in terms of young people... you know, young people are looked at as a problem, and are not looked at as resources. They have enormous energy. They have enormous commitment and idealism. And I think if we can tell young people that they're assets to their communities and not problems or challenges, the way that we've been treating them for the last 30 years, that we'll be in better shape.
JIM LEHRER: How does a President of the United States do that?
STEVE CULBERTSON: Well, I think they support programs such as Americorps, the Corporation for National Service, which has done an amazing job in bringing 100,000 young people in full-time, dedicated service over last several years; working with the existing non-profit sector, such as Youth Service America, where I am, or an organization such as Habitat for Humanity, or the American Red Cross. This is a way in which government partners with the non-profit sector, I think, in a really significant and effective way.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Gulker, where would you see the role of the federal government? That's actually what the President of the United States functions, operates, controls, leads. How does...you've heard what the others have said about government-- no government up to what the government should do. Where do you come down?
VIRGIL GULKER: Well, again, trying to view this through the perspective of the child, my anxiety here, Jim, is that the work that I do is done almost in exclusion from Washington. Most everything that's happening for the children and families we work with is community-based. There are a series of government programs that are essential for these children and families, but there are growing numbers of faith-based initiatives that are also having significant impact on the children. I think we need a marriage of those two, but I don't honestly think, Jim, it's any longer a matter primarily of policy. We have so much policy, so many programs, yet so much of this operates without any reference whatsoever to a person.
MARGARET BRODKIN: If I could...
VIRGIL GULKER: If I had my druthers, I would say that no politician should be able to propose or enact legislation for children or families unless he can name or actually interact with a child or family. We really have to go back to the issue of who do we want to lead us? That to me is almost more important than how they lead. I think we've got to have leaders whose hearts have been touched. I remember Robert Kennedy going home and telling his children about poor children he had worked with or spent time with. We have to get back to that kind of a value, I think, because that will shape how America reaches out to its children and families. No amount of policy is going to change that.
MARGARET BRODKIN: I very much think that government should not be the enemy in this presidential race, and I don't think people want it to be the enemy. I think that people want very concrete things from their government, and things that cost money; that, you know, we're not going to fix the problems of our children with volunteers. That helps, but we need money for schools, for child care centers, and we've had a whole era of, you know, putting the onus of responsibility only on the individual. Now I think we need to have an era where we have to go back and say, "unless we have government support families, parents aren't going to be able to do their jobs."
STARR PARKER: But..
MARGARET BRODKIN: It doesn't undermine their ability to do their jobs; in fact, it allows them to do their jobs. If they feel a sense of economic security, if they have a safe place to live, if they have safe, affordable child care, then they can be the parents they want to be.
JIM LEHRER: Ms. Parker?
STARR PARKER: But I don't agree that that's true. In fact, what has happened is, we have forced the American people into a situation of dependence on government by the tax system, to where we've grown comfortable with them providing the services. It has not been left up to the individual. Over the last 40 years, we have amassed a system that actually spends billions of dollars annually-- in fact, over a billion dollars a day just for poverty programs. And when you think about the poor and issues of the poor and family building-- which is a separate issue than someone brought up earlier, Columbine-- but when you think about those issues, what is at the root of that type of poverty? And it's illegitimacy, out-of- wedlock births. And until we start recognizing that family building is individual- and community-driven and not a massive system where we send 30 percent, some cases 40 percent of our income to a federal bureaucracy and have the solutions trickle back down to where they release that money, allowing for us communities and families build with the local networks that are available.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Stephney, where do you come down on this?
BILL STEPHNEY: Yeah, I have to agree with Ms. Parker on that. In the industry that I work, the music industry, there are rappers and singers with names like L.L. Cool J and Jah Rule who are writing songs about the breakup of their families, their own fatherlessness. We now live in communities where sometimes upwards of 85 to 90 percent of children are growing up without fathers. When they're growing up without fathers, they're growing up without adult males in those communities. It's good to talk about what government certainly can do, and sometimes government can be part of the solution, but there are other points where government can be the problem. Many of the reasons... one of the reasons why these communities are so fatherless today, you can look at welfare policy of the past 30 to 35 years, where federal legislation actually barred families from having fathers within the household in order for them to get aid.
MARGARET BRODKIN: But I'd like to remind people that the marriage rate and the employment rate correlate very closely together, so when people feel a sense of economic security, they are much more likely to be involved in their community, to raise stable families.
STARR PARKER: That's why we should privatize social security, because that is economic empowerment, in particular on behalf of the poor as well as low-wage workers.
MARGARET BRODKIN: I think that's a denial of the reality of what has actually been happening...
STARR PARKER: What, that 12 percent has been confiscated off of the top of people's checks and sent into a failing system that gives a very low rate of return?
JIM LEHRER: Let Miss Brodkin respond there, please.
MARGARET BRODKIN: What has actually happened is, we have withdrawn government support over last 15 years from our families, not increased it, and more and more money has gone into the hands of a very much smaller portion of people.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Culbertson, clearly there's disagreement on all of this.
STEVE CULBERTSON: We're used to that in Washington.
JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes, indeed. But how does this disagreement get aired during this presidential campaign? How can it be put on the table, so the candidates have to talk about it, whether you come down with Miss Brodkin or whether you come down with Ms. Parker or whoever?
STEVE CULBERTSON: Well, I think there's a couple of ways. First of all, the issues are important, and it's important that we look at what works. And there are problems being solved every day in America, absolutely, and the government has a role in that, the non- profit sector has a role in that, and the corporate sector has a role in that. And I think we need to highlight those programs, and I think that's what candidates do as they move around the country. They find things that work, just as Clinton found City Year in Boston and found that it worked. So I think that these kinds of forums that take place during an election period where there's an enormous amount of rhetoric-- and your particular industry is drawing out these ideas-- I think this is really in the mix of that, is where the ultimate answers will lie. But I don't think it's going to be easy. I think it's going to take a number of candidates. I'm glad to see that, you know, there are candidates on both sides, you know, more than one that seems to be bringing issues forward. McCain is doing some good stuff on the Republican side to try to balance out what Mr. Bush is doing. Certainly Mr. Bradley's added a lot to the Gore mix. So I think we're going to see some answers percolating out of this, but it's going to take some time.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Well, thank you all five very much.
MARGARET WARNER: Our agenda 2000 project continues. You can participate by visiting our Web site, at pbs.org/newshour, and also by regular mail to: The NewsHour, Box 2626, Washington, D.C., 20013.