In the United States, 22 percent of children live in poverty. It’s much worse for minority children: 33 percent of Hispanic, 37 percent of Native American, and 39 percent of African-American children live in families whose income is below the poverty line. Moreover, 1.7 million households barely survive on a cash income of less than $2 a person a day, which is the kind of desperate poverty experienced by the indigent in developing nations. About 600,000 Americans are homeless, including one in 30 children.
That 14.7 million poor children and 6.5 million extremely poor children live in the United States, the Children’s Defense Fund argues, is a national disgrace. It is “unnecessary, costly and the greatest threat to our future national, economic and military security.” An African-American boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of being incarcerated during his lifetime and a Latino boy born the same year has a one in six chance. The black infant mortality rate in the United States is higher than that of 65 nations including Ukraine, Malaysia, and Cuba.
Growing up in poverty has a very negative physical, intellectual, and psychological impact on children. Abundant research shows that the disadvantages poor children experience have many harmful life-long consequences. As pastor and educator Beth Lindsay Templeton argues, “poverty is more than a lack of money. It becomes a way of thinking, reacting and making decisions.” Wess Stafford, former CEO of Compassion International, maintains that “in daily life a lack of money” produces “a lack of options, which is perhaps a more accurate definition of poverty.”
Poverty affects how responsive children’s parents are to their needs, how much education they receive at home, the quality of children’s physical environment, the amount and type of food they eat, how frequently they change residences and schools, and their self-image and emotional well-being. The lack of proper nutrition between birth and age three often causes physical and intellectual impairment.
Anxiety, unhappiness, and dependency are common feelings among those who grow up in a destitute household. Poverty frequently leads to a lack of self-discipline and low self-esteem and reduces children’s trust and empathy. Destitute children often have feelings of hatred, anger, depression, and insecurity and view life as hopeless, pointless, and fruitless. This gloomy, pessimistic perspective of life prompts many of them to put forth little effort to get good grades, plan for the future, or improve their lives.
Many Americans do nothing to help indigent children, however, because poverty in the United States is often invisible. Most middle- and upper-class Americans encounter the indigent only when they see someone begging on the streets of a large city. They rarely interact with the poor who typically live in the inner city, mobile home parks on the edge of communities, dilapidated apartments scattered throughout cities and towns, or rural areas.
Despite living in a town of 8,000 in western Pennsylvania for more than three decades, I had little understanding of the nature or scope of my community’s poverty until my wife and I began working with an organization that helps local residents deal with financial emergencies. Five years later, I wonder how I could have been so blind.
In “A Path Appears,” Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn discuss the pathologies and problems that plague Breathitt County, Kentucky, in the heart of Appalachia. Strikingly, every problem they describe—the drug and alcohol abuse, dysfunctional families, school dropouts, difficulty finding jobs that pay livable wages, and hopelessness—is also present in our community. Even though you may have little contact with them, the poor undoubtedly live in your community or area.
Our experiences prompted my wife and I to write “Suffer the Children: What We Can Do to Improve the Lives of the World’s Impoverished Children.” It describes numerous things we can do to help destitute children in the United States and around the world. Let’s express the same indignation toward the deplorable circumstances in which millions of American children live as many have displayed toward Rich’s tasteless tweet. Then, let’s work to make their lives better.
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