America’s future is at risk. 

And not just because of all the bad news that has made recent headlines: gushing oil in the gulf, two wars and a limping economy.  

Our future is at risk because our children are at risk. 

This is a hidden issue which so far has drawn little media attention but has the potential for disastrous long-term consequences: A huge number of American children live in poverty or near poverty, and their number is steadily growing (see story, Page 4). 

Part of the problem can be attributed to the Great Recession of the past few years. But according to Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, the percentage of children living in low income families in the United States has been on the rise for the past decade, increasing from 37 percent in 2000 to 41 percent — that is 30 million children — in 2008. 

It hardly needs saying how serious the consequences are. Reams of sociological data tie childhood poverty with a host of social ills, from poorer academic achievement to increased criminal activity. 

Take one example: malnutrition. Children who don’t get enough good food to eat don’t just suffer hunger pangs; they suffer irreversibly stunted mental and physical development. And malnourished kids don’t just reside in Africa. During the 2008-2009 school year, 31.2 million American children participated in the National School Lunch Program. 

For many of those children, school-subsidized breakfast, lunch and snack are their best or only nourishment of the day. So they go hungry in these summer months when school is out. 

Summertime presents other challenges. Because many Americans are taking vacations or are otherwise distracted, charitable giving takes a dive in summer months. The local food banks that could help nourish poor families with children — maybe even in your parish — find it more difficult to stock their shelves. 

But childhood hunger is only a symptom of the risks children are facing. A report released last month on Father’s Day that said the principal cause of child poverty in the United States is the absence of married fathers in the home. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, the poverty rate for single parents with children is 35.6 percent, while the rate for married couples with children is 6.4 percent. 

“Being raised in a married family reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent,” the report said. 

The erosion of marriage as an institution has disproportionately affected children and those families that can least afford to raise children on single incomes. Of course, the grinding economic pressures of the last several years are now contributing to marital stress and divorce, but so is no-fault divorce, and the widespread social tolerance for divorce as a modern fact of life. 

This is why Pope Benedict XVI said last year that fighting childhood poverty should involve “above all, commitment to defense of the family and the stability of relations within it.” 

“When the family is weakened, it is inevitably children who suffer,” he said. 

Fighting childhood poverty does mean investing in our children through aid programs of all sorts, but it also means fighting to restore a culture that puts a high value on marriage and on the role and responsibilities of fathers.  

Helping children, the unborn and those making their way to adulthood is something our Christian vocation calls us to, and it is a commitment that our country desperately needs today.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor