Jennifer Garner, the actress and a member of the Board of Trustees of the nonprofit Save the Children, which promotes children’s rights, testified Thursday on Capitol Hill about the importance of early-childhood education for children who live in poverty.
Appearing at a hearing of the House Appropriations labor, health and human services, education and related agencies subcommittee, Garner explained in moving testimony how living in poverty affects the ability of young children to learn.
She appeared before the committee on the same day that President Trump released his new budget proposal that cuts Education Department funding significantly and does not prioritize early-childhood education. While the president proposed adding $1 billion for Title I, a $15 billion grant program for schools with high concentrations of poor children, the money would be used to encourage districts to adopt a controversial form of school choice. He also cut funds for older students from low-income and first-generation families.
Here is what Garner told the legislators, including subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and ranking member Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.):
“Thank you, Chairman Cole, ranking member DeLauro and members of the subcommittee for inviting me to testify on the importance of early-childhood education.
“Poverty is silent. I mean that quite literally.
“If you had come along with me to a family I visited in the Central Valley of California, a while back, you’d know. Their home had all the classic signifiers of poverty: trash in the yard, concrete walls, plastic sheets for windows. The right time of year, it might have had an oven door open for heat — or flypaper covered in flies.
“But that’s not what I notice first in homes like this. Not anymore.
“Listen for the sound of adult conversation. There is none. Listen for the sound of children babbling, or laughing, or crying. It doesn’t exist.
“Poverty is silent.
“In this particular home, there was an 11-month-old boy. He was sitting on the floor, staring dully at a television as it droned on. When I walked through the door with a Save the Children coordinator, the boy didn’t even look up.
“But we had brought with us — among other things — a ball. And this boy had never seen a ball. He was nearly a year old, and he had never seen a ball.
“The coordinator told his mother to sit on the ground and roll the ball to him. She did. And the boy looked at the ball — this new thing — not quite sure what to do with it at first. And then he imitated — and rolled it back. And his mom rolled it to him again. And this time, the boy made a noise. He’s talking to you, the coordinator told the mother. No, said the mom. My baby doesn’t talk. He’s talking to you, said the coordinator. Say something back to him. And the mother made babbling sounds back to her boy. Baby noises. And all of a sudden, there was a conversation in the air. Mother and baby. There was a connection. And a light went on in that little boy’s eyes.
“That story is the whole game, right there. It contains the problem, plain and simple.
“A brain in poverty is up against it. I’m telling you. A child who is not touched, who is not spoken to, who is not read to in the first five years of his or her life will not fully recover.
“Neglect can be every bit as harmful as abuse.
“When many of these children enter kindergarten, they don’t know their letters or numbers. They don’t know how to sit in a circle and listen to a story. They don’t know how to hold a book — they may have never even seen a book!
“That’s shocking, isn’t it? That 1 in 5 children in this country live in the kind of poverty that they could enter kindergarten never having seen a book.
“It’s easy to escape responsibility for disgrace like that by blaming the parents.
“Who doesn’t talk to a child or sing to a child?
“I’ll tell you who: parents who have lived their whole lives with the stresses that come with food scarcity, with lack of adequate shelter, with drug addiction and abuse. Parents who were left on the floor when they were children — ignored by their parents who had to choose — as one-third of mothers in this country do — between providing food or a clean diaper.
“Poverty dulls the senses, saps hope, destroys the will.
“So I never look at these people and ask, ‘How could you?’ I say, ‘There but for the grace of God . . . ‘
“Here’s the good news: That story of the little boy also contains the seeds of a solution. It takes so little: a ball, a book, a parent who is given the encouragement to read or talk or sing to a child.
“That mother from the Central Valley of California said to me, ‘No one ever read me a book in my whole life.’ But she’s reading to her little boy now.
“With a significant investment in high-quality early-childhood education — proven, effective programs like Early Head Start and Head Start, Child Care Development Block Grants, Preschool Development Grants and home visitation models such as Save the Children’s Early Steps to School Success — we can intervene in these children’s lives in time to make a difference.
“Give those children one responsive, responsible adult, and you can actually protect them from the stressors of poverty. That’s how resilient a child’s brain is. It takes so little — and it does so much.
“As Frederick Douglass said, ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’
“So, why don’t we take care of our poorest children more willingly? Well, poverty is silent. And I mean that entirely metaphorically.
“These children don’t vote. They don’t make political contributions.
“Neither do their parents. Somebody has to tell their story — above all the noise.
“Poverty is silent. But I can’t be.
“I grew up — as I have often told people — one generation and one holler removed from poverty. I knew children in my own school who had to cut holes in the toes of their shoes because they couldn’t afford to buy new ones. Children who didn’t move from first to second grade when I did. Children who eventually disappeared altogether.
“I couldn’t stand up for them back then. But I can stand up for their families now. With Save the Children, I have been for nine years.
“Every day, 2,723 babies are born into poverty in this country. That’s almost 994,000 each year. Twenty-five percent of all births.
“Those children can’t wait for the next Congress — or the Congress after that — for us to intervene. We have just a few years. And then it’s all but too late.
“I was thinking about that great quote from the late Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, who said, ‘I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near-certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.’
“In an age when we wonder how we might best compete with the rest of the world — how many Einsteins and F. Scott Fitzgeralds, how many Amelia Earharts and Katherine Johnsons and Bill Gateses — how many people could have changed this country if only they had the opportunity we are talking about this morning?
“For want of a book.
“I am asking you to support early-childhood education. Please.”