There's a wonderful passage in Genesis in which Esau and Jacob -- surrounded by their children, wives, workers and herds -- encounter each other and reconcile after years of estrangement.

Esau then invites Jacob to accompany him as they travel on. Jacob, however, is concerned that to do so would mean driving the herds too hard and exhausting the children. As a result, some would be unable to keep up and would be left behind. And so Jacob declines the invitation, saying, "I will lead on slowly ... according to the pace of the children."

Acting on the wisdom of Jacob, we too need to alter our gait to ensure the safety and well-being of children.

The responsibility for making progress in a way that ensures that every child moves ahead has been at the forefront of the Children's Defense Fund's mission since its inception. In 1990, we began to express that commitment as one which would "Leave No Child Behind."

"Leave No Child Behind" strikes a deep and resonant chord with all kinds of people who love and care about children, as concern for children being left behind cuts across lines of income, race, ethnicity, political party and geography.

Leave no child behind is the aching refrain in so many hearts, is the chant of so many determined wills, is the challenge for so many thoughtful minds. It is the cry of parents struggling in poverty who witness daily the obstacles blocking their children's health and development, from lead poisoning, asthma and untreated ear and eye problems, to undernutrition.

It is the call of middle-income parents who worry about finding and affording decent child care for their youngest children, who are concerned about failing schools that leave many children less prepared than their counterparts across town or around the world, and who already wonder how they will ever afford college tuition.

"Leave no child behind" was also heard on the lips of President Bush as he campaigned for office.

But "leave no child behind" must be more than a well-turned phrase, if it is to be the expression of what is best in us, of what is best for us, for America. We must hold accountable all who profess it -- from president to parents -- and insist their actions embody what their words proclaim.

That the task to "leave no child behind" still lies before us a decade after CDF initiated this refrain is testimony to the extent of the challenge.

In 1989, one out of every five children lived in poverty. While some families have risen out of poverty since then due to the growth of the economy, today one out of every six children are still poor in the richest nation on Earth. It is to our great national shame that more than 12 million children are being left behind despite our $10 trillion economy.

For a God whose "eye is on the sparrow," even one child lost to body- stunting, dream-crushing, mind-limiting, hope-deadening poverty is one child too many.

As Jacob contemplated the journey ahead, he decided to travel forward in the way that would best protect and care for the children. He didn't abandon his destination, he just made sure he got there the right way. As we contemplate the way forward for our children, we, too, must commit ourselves to progress that leaves no child behind. This calls for both big vision and carefully planned first steps.

We -- as individuals, faith communities, states and a nation -- can and must set a goal of eliminating child poverty within 10 years. As we eradicated the smallpox that once cut short children's lives and is now a thing of the past, we can eradicate child poverty in this, the richest nation on Earth. It won't happen overnight and it won't happen without effort, but with leadership, careful planning, broad commitment and concerted action, it can happen. It is a mission worthy of a great nation and the plumb line that will measure the justice and compassion of America.

Joining the faith leaders who recently met with President Bush, we should call on the president to reduce child poverty by 50 percent by 2004 as the first bench mark in eliminating child poverty.

Real commitment to this goal will be measured, then, by the national priorities embodied in any tax cut. Whom will it benefit the most: the children and the neediest, or the wealthy? Will the tax cut reduce or further increase what is already the largest gap between rich and poor in history? A tax cut must not be permitted to further erode our national capacity to help children, especially those who need it the most.

To ensure children aren't last or left out in a tax cut, we must make refundable the Child Tax Credit which Bush proposes to increase from $500 to $1,000. In this way, even those who owe no tax would receive the credit. This single step of a refundable Child Tax Credit would lift one-sixth of poor children out of poverty. However, not to make the Child Tax Credit refundable would leave behind 16 million children -- one in four of the nation's children.

Justice requires that this proposal reach all children, which is something only a refundable credit will do.

After their long-awaited reunion, Jacob and Esau had the same destination before them. But Jacob, mindful of the weakest, youngest members of his household, determined to move ahead in a way that would not leave the most vulnerable ones behind. More than 10 centuries later, we should do no less.

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