In case you have not seen recent statistics on poverty in the United States, here are some thought provoking numbers – on children. Last year UNICEF ranked the “developed” nations by percentage of children living in poverty, and the United States ranked 34th of 35, with a child poverty level exceeded only by Romania. Yet the wealth of the United States grew by 30 trillion dollars in the past ten years. Where is the wealth going? (That’s the subject of another blog post, but here’s a clue – 1%.)
The United States Commerce Department says that 36% of Native American and Alaskan children live below the poverty level, as do 32% of Hispanic children and 38% of African American children. The figure for white children is 13%. So once again, looks like it’s those minorities who just can’t keep it together while white adults take can care of their children.
But wait! The largest number of children living in poverty in the United States are white. That 13% percent of white kids comes out to 4.2 million children, the largest group by race/ethnicity, simply because there are more white people than all the minorities combined in the United States at the moment (though you are surely aware that that is shifting rapidly). OK, now we know that no racial/ethnic group in the U. S. is doing well by its offspring. Overall, 20% of American kids live below the poverty level. That is one in five U. S. residents under age 18.
Numbers, no matter how awful, just don’t seem to move citizens to action. Faces do. So I am going to tell two stories about poor children, teenagers, whom I have met. I hope you will be able to see their faces.
The first boy’s name is Mono, Spanish for monkey, a not uncommon nickname for a high energy, good looking boy. We were talking about how he got behind in school, and this is what he told me.
“We had very little money. My mother lost her job, and my little brother got sick and needed medicine. So my mother had to decide to buy food or soap. She got food so we could eat. But mostly pinche frijoles. So we washed with only water, and our clothes got dirty and smelly. When we went to school we got in fights with the kids who called us names, so we stopped going to school. Then we moved and things got better, but that was long time and we got behind in reading and arithmetic. So we skipped school a lot so people would not think we were stupid.”
Did you ever think poverty could mean deciding between food and soap? For Mono and his brother, poverty means shame and frustration. Mono is a smart kid, but I know he is not going on to college. I doubt, barring some wonderful intervention, that he will even finish high school.
The second boy’s name is George. He lived in an apartment with his mother who was frequently ill and could rarely hold a job. George frequently acted in the role of head of house. We met at a Christmas gathering at a youth center. George was alone - no family with him. Part of the program was for each young person to tell about his or her best Christmas present. Here is what George presented.
“I live with my mother in a very small apartment. There is a rule that says no dogs can live in the apartments. But when I was eleven, I met this dog who liked me, so I brought him food, scraps from us and from the neighbors, and I made him a bed under the stairs where the gas and electrical meters are. When I came home from school each day, he was waiting for me, and I told him what was happening with me. Sometimes I would throw a ball in the alley for him. Well, it came to be Christmas, and my mother was sick, so she went to live with her friend who had a car and could take her to the doctor. So I was alone on Christmas morning. I went down the stairs to see my dog, but he was not there. But when I came down later, he was running down the alley to me, and he sat down in front of me and gave me his present, a rat he brought right to me, wagging his tail so much. And I was so happy to have his present.”
After the presentations, I asked George if since then things had gotten better, and he said they had. I asked, “So then, have you gotten better presents than the rat?” And George was taken aback. “No,” he said, “didn’t you hear my story? I told you, the present from my dog is the best present I ever got, the rat.”
This is poverty, not just material poverty. A dog and a rat provided more joy for George than any humans ever had. What do we call this? Poverty of humanity? Poverty of spirit?
George’s is the saddest story I have heard (not tragic, just simply sad), sad on so many levels. George is so poor in so many ways, and he doesn’t even know it.
Poverty is not only about being cold and hungry. It’s also about being deprived of education, health, and common human connections. Think about Mono and his brother, and about George, the next time you skim some figures on wealth and poverty in the richest nation on the planet.