Marian Wright Edelman challenged those receiving diplomas from Goucher College yesterday not to forget about the children, delivering a stern lecture in a steamy gymnasium overflowing with excited graduates and proud parents.
Goucher's 109th commencement, moved inside by the rain, launched the Baltimore area graduation season.
The school in Towson handed out 235 bachelor's degrees and 56 master's degrees, conferring honorary doctorates on Baltimore school board President J. Tyson Tildon, Goucher alumna Ruth B. Fein, former president of the American Jewish Historical Society, and Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund.
In her talk, Edelman compared the United States to a wealthy family with five children -- four of whom are fed, clothed, housed and educated while the fifth is not.
"This is the American family today," she said. "One in five children live in poverty. 13.5 million children live in poverty in the wealthiest country on earth."
Edelman chastised the country for allowing this to happen as it celebrates its wealth in a burgeoning economy producing budget surpluses and other government money -- such as tobacco settlements -- that could be spent on these children. Despite the continued growth of the economy, she said, there is a greater chance of a child growing up poor today than in the period between 1966 and 1980.
"And the gap between rich and poor is growing more than ever," she said, pointing out that most poor children do not come from homes dependent on welfare. They have parents who work, yet still live below the poverty line.
Many in the audience applauded when Edelman decried what she called an epidemic of "affluenza." She said many children are coming from wealthy backgrounds with plenty of possessions, but devoid of lasting values.
"It's the problem that comes from having too much wealth and too little guidance in morality," she said.
Edelman said many parents enjoying the country's prosperity are abandoning their children, allowing them to roam "in peer group packs." These children grow up, she said, equating consumption with success.
"Leave no child behind," she said.