axelrod files

Editor’s Note: The Axe Files, featuring David Axelrod, is a podcast distributed by CNN and produced at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The author works for the podcast.

Chicago CNN  — 

As Congress returns and Washington readies for a new president, the leader of a children’s advocacy group’s political arm fears that vulnerable children and other at-risk communities might have much to lose from Donald Trump’s agenda.

Mark Shriver, head of Save the Children Action Network, expressed concerns with the policy priorities of the incoming Donald Trump administration — personal and corporate tax cuts, increases in defense spending, reductions in entitlements — and what it could mean for the vulnerable communities that have marginal influence in Washington.

“They don’t have political sway. They’re not making big campaign contributions,” Shriver told David Axelrod on “The Axe Files” podcast, produced by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN. “And when the cuts are made, they’re the ones who don’t have the biggest voice, and they’re the most vulnerable.”

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Instead of cutting programs for children, Shriver wants to see Congress recommit to initiatives like early childhood education, which has garnered bipartisan support at the state and local level and has shown results.

“Those first five years of life when 90% of brain growth happens, I think is the biggest social justice issue in this country,” argued Shriver, because poor children are developing at a slower pace than more affluent children for want of resources and a proper learning environment.

“It’s outrageous that we don’t do more as a country,” Shriver continued. “I wish the leadership in Washington would see what’s going on in the states and make a commitment to our poor kids before they enter kindergarten.”

During the conversation, Shriver touched on the personal impact that his parents — Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a driving force behind the Special Olympics — had on him. It was their Catholic faith and commitment to helping the poor and vulnerable that contributed to his decision to pursue a career in public service, Shriver says.

While his commitment to public service never wavered, Shriver says that his faith underwent a test of confidence as he felt increasingly disconnected from the church of his youth and descended into what he called “a Catholic funk.”

Then Pope Francis began his papacy through very public and humble gestures of charity — asking for the blessing of the crowd at St. Peter’s Square before he blessed them, washing the feet of juvenile offenders, even paying his own hotel bill. Shriver could see that this pope was different, but he wasn’t certain if it was genuine.

“These are all gestures that kind of clearly caught my attention and made me wonder, are these publicity stunts in order to garner positive PR for the church, or is this guy the real deal?” Shriver said.

He was determined to find out.

Driven by a need for greater understanding of the roots of Pope Francis’s faith, and a desire to renew his own, Shriver set out to learn more about the new pope through his journey from Jesuit priest and reformist bishop in Buenos Aires to leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, a remarkable path that he chronicles in his new book, “Pilgrimage: My Search for the Real Pope Francis.”

Shriver, answering emphatically that Pope Francis is indeed “the real deal,” believes his power comes in part from his ability to challenge individuals to do their part to make our communities stronger and more compassionate.

“I think that’s why people respond to him,” Shriver said. “Because great leadership, whether they’re political or religious, ask us to get beyond our self… And they inspire us to go into our soul and to try to make connection with our neighbors. Not build walls and isolate us, right? And that’s what great leaders do, and I think that’s what he’s doing.”

Whether Pope Francis, who is 80, can build a legacy strong enough to withstand the more traditional elements within the institutional arm of the Catholic Church, is a question Shriver cannot answer, but he is certain that the Pope has already left a lasting impact.

“The way [Pope Francis] treats people on the fringes…he’s sending a message to all of us,” stated Shriver. “I think it’s going to be hard to backtrack on that.”

To hear the whole conversation with Shriver, which also covered the enduring legacies his parents left on the nation and on the wider world, why he believes politics and public service are still a noble profession, and much more, click on To get “The Axe Files” podcast every week, subscribe at

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Mark Shriver’s role. He’s the head of the Save the Children Action Network.