Video still of Alex the Muppet from Sesame Street's “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” online tool kit (© Sesame Workshop)
Considering how many Americans are in incarcerated these days, surprisingly little attention is paid to their children. That's a situation "Sesame Street" is starting to address.

The beloved children's TV show has recently introduced a new blue-haired, green-nosed Muppet named Alex whose dad is in prison. Alex, who wears a hoodie, gives voice to kids who might feel that they don't otherwise have one.

It's a groundbreaking idea, and anyone worried about the effects of imprisonment on families -- and about the skyrocketing costs that taxpayers bear for maintaining prisons -- should welcome it.

As part of this effort, Sesame Street Workshop, the nonprofit that produces the show, has created the Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration program aimed at giving support to children with incarcerated parents and to their caregivers.

It and the new Muppet are also prime examples of how the children's show, which earns millions of dollars from merchandise sales, continues to reinvent itself for new generations. "Sesame Street" has also reached out to military families with parents deployed overseas.

According to the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Child Development, at least 1.7 million children had a parent in state or federal prison as of 2007. It notes that this number didn't include the millions who have a parent in a local jail and that precise numbers of children in this situation are hard to come by because "jails, corrections departments, schools, child welfare departments, and other systems do not systematically count them." Many of these children maintain their relationships with their incarcerated parents.

Not surprisingly, having an incarcerated parent increases the likelihood of children's having problems such as behavioral issues and substance abuse. By highlighting these problems while helping children with them, "Sesame Street" hopes to encourage lawmakers to create policies that will lead to fewer people going to prison and more people getting treatment.

The U.S. has had the world's highest incarceration rates since 2002, according to the Population Reference Bureau. As of 2010, the rate was 500 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, compared with an average of 100 prisoners per 100,000 citizens in peer countries. Incarceration rates are significantly higher for American blacks and Latinos than for whites.

And the costs are huge. A 2012 survey of 40 states found that prisons were a $39 billion expense in fiscal 2010. Appropriations for the federal Bureau of Prisons have risen from $3.7 billion in fiscal 2000 to $6.4 billion in fiscal 2011.

"Sesame Street's" efforts to assist the children of the incarcerated is laudable but sadly overdue. The show takes risks that for-profit media companies wouldn't dare. Can you imagine SpongeBob or Dora tackling this issue?

Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter @jdberr.

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