In October, I lost my father, Cary Booker.
After his death, I received so many notes of support – people taking time out of their own busy lives to send messages of love and sympathy. I was deeply grateful for them – each one – but of all the cards, emails and tweets, one stands out to me in this week of Thanksgiving.
It came from Kevin Ryan, whose charity, Covenant House International, operates a facility in Newark that serves 2,000 homeless youth every year.
“I love you, brother, and I send you my deepest sympathy,” he wrote. “Would that all the kids of the world had a father who believed in them, inspired them, challenged them and lifted them as yours did. What a world this would be. Lucky, lucky you, my friend.”
Kevin was right. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for having a dad who cared about me and who worked every day to provide for our family and shape our lives.
Kevin’s note, though, also made me think about my father’s life and childhood. It was much like the lives of the young people who rely every day on Covenant House. He was born poor in the mountains of North Carolina to a single mother who couldn’t take care of him. He could have been homeless, if not for the kindness of others.
By most counts, my dad shouldn’t have grown up to graduate college and become an IBM executive. But because of the caring and compassion of people who would not let a child fall through the cracks, because of the sacrifices of activists who demanded equality and civil rights, and because of his own grit and work ethic – modeled after the caring adults in his life – my dad, like so many others in his generation, moved from poverty into the middle class.
Forces conspired to alter the arc of his destiny.
But what must concern us all is that it’s actually becoming harder for children like my dad to bend the arc today.
A 2013 Brookings Institution study showed upward social mobility – defined by the ability of a child born into a lower socioeconomic class to climb into a higher one – is decreasing. What is even more frustrating is that America, the land of opportunity, is no longer leading in social mobility. We are being outdone by other nations – countries such as Britain, Denmark and Canada, and more than a dozen others – in the ability of poor children to rise into the middle class.
This painful reality is compounded by the fact that a recent UNICEF study ranked the U.S. close to the bottom among wealthy countries in the percentage of children living in poverty.
The takeaway? Aspects of what we believe central to the American Dream are becoming easier to find elsewhere. This is unacceptable.
So on this Thanksgiving – my first without my father – I am thankful for him.
Even more, I am so thankful for the nation that enabled and empowered his success and the successes of so many other children of his generation. I am thankful that my dad grew up in a country where so many understood that the justice, well being and prosperity of their children is dependent upon the justice, well being and prosperity of all children.
If I am to respect my father’s memory, I, like all adults, must clearly recognize the urgency of our time and the interdependence of our fates. We must assume a deeper responsibility or we will lose the best of America. We cannot afford to wait for our government to act upon this problem, which it must do. We must understand that it will be the increased engagement, love and service of our citizenry that will save this nation’s soul.
And thus, my Thanksgiving prayer, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, is for “America to be America again,” that we may be the nation where even the poorest child, born under the most difficult conditions, is able to rise to achieve her dreams in a country that truly nurtures the unlimited potential of all its citizens.
Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, N.J., was elected to the U.S. Senate in October.
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