The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) describes itself as a “child advocacy” group that works to improve the health care, education, and day care programs available to American children. It was established in 1973 by attorney Marian Wright Edelman. In Edelman’s calculus, children were an identifiable constituency on whose behalf she could advocate for the adoption of leftist social agendas (most notably the expansion of the welfare state), given society’s wont to regard as sacrosanct most programs citing the benefit of children as their primary concern. “When you talked about poor people or black people you faced a shrinking audience,” she later explained. “I got the idea that children might be a very effective way to broaden the base for change.”
The “change” envisioned by CDF was the implementation of a host of federally funded social welfare programs designed to function as “preventive investment” measures that would save “at-risk” children from the potential ravages of poverty, abuse, disease, mental illness, scholastic failure, drug addiction, and incarceration — all of which CDF considers by-products of the societal heartlessness bred by capitalism and by America’s allegedly rampant racism. “We pay particular attention to the needs of poor and minority children and those with disabilities,” says CDF, which aims to address the inequities purportedly caused by the foregoing societal vices.
In her 1999 book Hell to Pay, the late Barbara Olson wrote: “Edelman’s great insight was to put children squarely in front of almost every domestic policy debate. This is central to the CDF’s mission and a marvelous marketing tool. … The CDF has browbeaten lawmakers for such programs as Head Start or the nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children, as well as expanding welfare and public housing programs, guaranteed employment, and higher minimum wages. … When critics argued that America’s welfare program was subsidizing illegitimacy and creating a culture of government-dependent poverty and victimhood, the CDF countered that any attempt to reduce the welfare state was a direct assault on children.”
CDF classifies its work into four major Divisions:
(1) Early Childhood Development Division: This Division is founded on the dual premise that “children need high-quality early learning experiences to help them succeed in school and in life,” and that “families also need child care services so parents can work.” To meet both these needs, the CDF Early Childhood Division calls for massive taxpayer subsidies for the following projects:
(a) Head Start: Created in 1965, this program seeks to give children aged five and under what CDF calls “a sound early learning experience so they can be ready to succeed in school.” Head Start’s 2005 budget of $6.8 billion provided services to more than 905,000 children, at an average cost of about $7,500 per child. According to a Government Accounting Office research summary, there is little evidence that this program makes any long-term impact on children’s development. Based on her review of the pertinent literature, Abigail Thernstrom reports that Head Start “really has done almost nothing for kids academically, basically nothing.”
(b) Child Care: “Families struggle to find and afford quality child care, and scarcity of after-school programs leaves school-age children home alone. The funding for child care assistance does not come close to serving those who are eligible.”
(c) Pre-kindergarten Education: “The number of children in pre-kindergarten programs is increasing. Yet, low-income children are still much less likely to have access to these programs than other children.”
(d) After-School Care: “The majority of school-age children have parents who work. These children need safe places to go during their out-of-school hours when parents are still at work. … Low-income children have the greatest need for after-school programs, but they are less likely to have access to constructive activities during their out-of-school time.”
(2) Youth Development Division: This Division advocates increased taxpayer funding of programs in the areas of after-school child care, gang violence prevention, high-school dropout prevention, mentoring, substance-abuse prevention, truancy prevention, and tutoring.
(3) Family Income Division: This Division works “to help families get the financial resources they need to support their children,” including: “jobs that pay livable wages; education to help parents compete for better jobs; tax benefits to help support their children and lift themselves out of poverty; [and] other help such as cash assistance, food stamps and low-cost housing.” To help parents obtain these resources, the Family Income Division works with members of Congress “to promote policies that increase access to resources necessary to support a family”; “works with federal agencies such as the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service”; and “connects families with tax credits and federal government benefits.”
(4) Child Health Division: Advocating a taxpayer-funded, government-administered system of socialized medicine, this Division works “to ensure all American children have health insurance so they can get health care and mental health services.”
To supplement the foregoing Divisions, CDF runs three major campaigns to advance its agendas:
(A) Emerging Leaders Project: Aimed at cultivating a new generation of social change activists, this project “brings together early care and education advocates and provides them training, resources, networking, and technical assistance.”
(B) Tax and Benefits Outreach: Through this program, CDF “gives information and free tax assistance to help poor and near-poor families,” helping them “find existing federal and state benefits to improve their living standards, health and opportunities.” These benefits include such things as Food Stamps, which, according to CDF, in 2002 “added more than $200 a month to the income of the average poor family with children who received them.”
(C) Cradle to Prison Pipeline Initiative: “Poor and minority children face risks and disadvantages that often pull them into … marginalized lives and premature deaths.” This CDF Initiative works to break this cycle by focusing its resources in the following areas:
Poverty: “Child poverty in America continues to grow even though most poor children live in working families. … A disproportionate number of minority children live in poverty. … Research links poverty to multiple child risks and disadvantages including increased risks of abuse, neglect, academic failure, delinquency and violence.” Early Childhood: “Poor minority children are less likely to enter elementary school prepared” in terms of reading and math readiness skills, says CDF. “Children participating in high-quality early education had lower rates of juvenile delinquency, fewer arrests and fewer juvenile court petitions. At-risk toddlers who lacked quality childcare and early development programs like Head Start were five times as likely to become chronic law breakers as adults.”
Child Abuse and Neglect: “Abused and neglected children are far more likely to be delinquent and arrested as adults. Children in the juvenile justice system are more likely to have a history of child abuse and neglect than children outside the system. Poor children are more likely to be abused or neglected.”
Mental Health Care: “Lack of access to community-based mental health services is causing thousands of poor children every year to be sucked into the ‘Cradle to Prison Pipeline.’ Black children are less likely than other children in foster care to receive needed mental health services. … [F]ewer Black youths than White youths get needed mental health institutional care.”
Education: “Minority children are less likely to succeed in school. Academic failure in the elementary grades increases risk for later violent behavior.”
Juvenile Justice System and Incarceration: Characterizing the American criminal-justice system as irredeemably racist, CDF states: “Children of color are more likely to be incarcerated in both the juvenile and criminal justice systems. … One in three Black boys born in 2001 will spend time in prison at some point in their lives. For those charged with drug offenses, Black youths are 48 times more likely to be incarcerated than White youths.”
Community Violence: “The firearm death rate for Black males ages 15 to 19 is more than four times that of White males ages 15 to 19.”
In 2000, Marian Wright Edelman’s husband Peter Edelman moderated a CDF conference titled “Ending Child Poverty As We Know It,” where CDF Chairman David Hornbeck, then-superintendent of the Philadelphia school system, asserted, to loud applause, that “the white male power structure has not begun to assimilate” the fact that by the year 2030 there would be more “so-called minority children than majority.” Blaming white racism for minority underachievement, he added: “Politics in this country is when … five white guys get in a room and cut up the pie. Rage is the right word. Until we boil over in controlled ways, this is not going to change.”
CDF’s propensity to blame white racism for most black ills was again on display on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004, when a CDF report claimed that the academic performance of minority students had actually regressed since schools were first integrated. Said Marian Wright Edelman, “The strong black traditions of family and hunger for education have been undermined by white resistance to Brown, and [by] our nation’s choices not to invest adequately in quality public schools for all children.” Alleging that excessive military spending had rendered publicly funded programs for children virtually bankrupt by comparison, CDF accused President George W. Bush of waging a “Budget War on Children.” In 2003, CDF had joined Al-Awda, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women, and Not in Our Name in protesting the Iraq War and other aspects of American foreign policy.
CDF strongly opposed the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the ambitious welfare-reform initiative designed to move people off the welfare rolls and into jobs. Edelman and CDF predicted that the ACT would cause great harm to American children, particularly poor minorities. Edelman called the bill the “biggest betrayal of children” she had witnessed since the CDF’s founding, and predicted that it would cause the starvation of a million black children. The reality, however, turned out to be very different: By May 2002, there were 2.3 million fewer children living in poverty than there had been in 1996; black child poverty dropped by 25 percent, reaching its lowest level in American history by 2001.
Under the auspices of its “Black Community Crusade for Children,” aimed specifically at the problems of black poverty, CDF recently opened a series of “Freedom Schools“—after-school and summer-school programs taught by college students. Eschewing phonics-based approaches to reading instruction, these schools instead offer an “Integrated Reading Curriculum” that relies on the “whole language” method coupled with an Afrocentric curriculum. Each school day begins with a meeting called a hamarbee, the Swahili word for “unity.” One Kansas City Star reporter observed the children at a local Freedom School singing a rap song: “Ain’t no party like the Freedom School party, cause the Freedom School party don’t stop. We got it goin’ on at the Freedom School!”
CDF’s most notable supporter and affiliate is Marian Wright Edelman’s longtime friend, Hillary Clinton. During the summer of 1970, Hillary (whose name, at that time, was still Hillary Rodham) interned for Edelman in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1973, Hillary moved to Washington and took a full-time position as a staff lawyer with CDF. Clinton joined the CDF Board in 1978 and chaired the Board from 1986 to 1992. She was also named Chairwoman of the New World Foundation, which had helped launch CDF in 1973.
CDF’s current national headquarters are in Washington, DC. The organization also has 13 local and regional locations in California, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.
The Children’s Defense Fund receives financial support from the Aetna Foundation, the Altman Foundation, the American Express Foundation, the American Federation of Teachers, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the AT&T Foundation, the BP Foundation, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the Charles H. Revson Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Chartwell Charitable Foundation, the Citigroup Foundation, the Columbus Foundation and Affiliated Organizations, the Commonwealth Fund, the DaimlerChrysler Corporation Fund, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Freddie Mac Foundation, the General Mills Foundation, the Gerber Foundation, the Hess Foundation, the Hugh J. Anderson Foundation, the J. Aron Charitable Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Kansas Health Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Merrill Lynch & Co. Foundation, the Metropolitan Life Foundation, the Mobil Foundation, the Monterey Fund, the National Education Association, the Norman and Rosita Winston Foundation, the Otto Bremer Foundation, the Procter & Gamble Foundation, the Prudential Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the RGK Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Sara Lee Foundation, the St. Paul Companies Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the Travelers Companies Foundation, the US West Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the William Penn Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
In addition, CDF received a grant of more than $700,000 from the Carnegie Corporation of New York while Teresa Heinz Kerry sat on its board of trustees; Marian Wright Edelman received the Heinz Award for the “Human Condition” in 1995.