Child poverty: A modern American tragedy

By Andrew Hammond

Hubert Humphrey once said that “the moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life: the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.” Our government has repeatedly failed that test, and nowhere is that failure more apparent or more criminal than it is with how we care for our children. Many of our American children awake to find a world not bright with hope but dark with despair—the bright light of opportunity eclipsed by poverty and all the terrors that come with it. And in an election season that is called the most important of our generation, neither candidate has mentioned the fact that one in six American children live in poverty, let alone outlined measures to change it.

Every 40 seconds, an American baby is born into poverty. That child will not wake to a promising public education nor will that baby find proper treatment if he is sick. That child, an American citizen for whom we will be so willing to mourn when he falls in a battle far from our shores, is ignored when he is abused or killed before he can celebrate his first birthday. After all, every 19 minutes an American baby dies before he is one year old.

Make no mistake, Americans who have given their lives so this nation might live should be honored and wept for. But to mourn those who have fallen and not lament the innocent children who are harmed or slain within our own borders betrays what far too many Americans have given their lives for. Why do we cry for soldiers when they are men, but disregard them when they are boys?

And the poverty line is by no means high. Deemed “miserly” by the conservative weekly The Economist, the American poverty line is at the annual amount of $18,810 for a family of four or $4720.50 per person.

But poverty is not simply the lack of material possession. In this country, poverty is an unending cycle—a torturous perpetuity that breeds all the vile forces that beset our young people—firearms, narcotics, and gangs. Every day, 182 children are arrested for violent crime and twice that are arrested for drug abuse.

But what about all the stories that the statistics do not show? All the stories of children repeatedly attacked by circumstances that they did not choose and that they cannot help.

Nearly a third of Chicago youth are below the poverty line. These Chicago kids deal with harrowing experiences that we of better fortune were lucky enough never to see. That is not to say that children who were not born in poverty did not experience hardship, nor that children not born into poverty, automatically have easy lives.

What must be said is that in this society, in today’s America, the economic situation you are born into determines the quality of your education and the quality of your healthcare, not to mention one’s exposure to drugs and violence. Children have a difficult time as it is without having to pass a drug dealer on the way to school, and that is precisely why we need to help children in poverty who do have to experience the unimaginable.

So where do we begin in arresting the catastrophic effects of child poverty? First and foremost, we must be committed to engaging in real education reform. Education reform that does not simply test failing schools and use those failed standards as an excuse to de-fund those schools further á la No Child Left Behind, which in fact leaves every child behind.

We need education reform that reforms public education with qualified teachers, adequate supplies, and smaller class sizes. We need real gun control that prevents a teenager from buying an automatic weapon on the web. We need a drug policy that is committed to getting people off of drugs, not into jail. We need leaders who are committed to these ideas and we need to pressure those leaders when they forget that commitment.

But much more importantly, we as members of a humane society need to commit and recommit to helping children. Legislation will never be enough even if it’s properly funded and executed. Individual awareness of the arresting problem of child poverty is the key. We must help out in our communities, working at a food pantry or an after-school program, or becoming a youth mentor. Child poverty is a colossal problem and it will only be eradicated by individual determination and heroism.

And to those who wipe the necessary guilt from their thoughts with the question, “Well, how did I personally contribute to that child’s death?” I ask, “Well, how did you contribute to that child’s life?” That passive disinterest which so many of us suffer from must be transformed into an active compassion if we are finally to give all American children what they deserve: our sincere commitment to their well-being.