Sep 9, 2009

Children & Poverty in the U.S.

I am passionate about a lot of stuff.  Most of the things I am passionate about fall into 2 big buckets: Children (birth-young adults, really), and economics (local, global, you name it!).  So put them together, and one of my biggest passions is fighting Child poverty.  I used to think of this issue through an "across the sea" lens, but my worldview has rapidly expanded over the past several years to include the huge rate of Child poverty here in the U.S.

Today, I got an interesting email from The National Center For Children In Poverty.  In the email, an the corresponding website, there were some research findings highlighted that I found very useful.  Here are a few:

* Between 9.5 and 14.2 percent of children between birth and five years old experience social-emotional problems that negatively impact their functioning, development and school-readiness.

* Approximately 9 percent of children who receive specialty mental health services in the United States are younger than 6 years old.

* Boys show a greater prevalence of behavior problems than girls.
When Frederick Douglass said that "it is easier to build strong children than to fix broken men," he was spot on.  It is one of the truest statements about what I see happening to our teenagers in the U.S. than just about any other.  We do a lot of "fixing," (in theory), but how much time do we proactively spend "building?"  I know that in my house, we are doing our level best to be builders!
So back to Child poverty...Q: how can we invest in building and get less and less dependent on fixing?  Any thoughts?


  1. Adoption...time for people to start putting their money were their mouths are...there are waiting children, and if they don't have parents and they become teens we have serious problems. Sometimes I get tired of people waxing/waning eloquently about these issues when they don't want to do the daily work of being there for a child.

  2. Great post, and definitely something to be passionate about. I remember first learning about the inequality in our public schools, the terribly under-resourced schools in cities and rural communities, and having the thought that folks can rant and rave about personal responsibility and whatever else when encountering wayward adults, but inequality in our public schools, that's unacceptable, and no one can say about that child, "well, he deserves it." Sorry, long random rant, but my point is that I share your passion about the need to address child poverty and I feel it's a rallying point that most people can gather around.

    So, what do we do...
    I definitely agree with Mindy, adoption is one of those ways. Also foster care or building those deep relationships where you are there to take children in when families are struggling (as I know you have).
    There are a lot of programs and things, but I think unless it's happening on that deeper relational, face-to-face level, many more kids are going to feel the ravaging effects of poverty.

    So, here's a thought for you: What was it about the relationships you've formed that has allowed you to be along side families that are struggling? How have you found that place that you could help bear anothers burden, and you were close enough that you knew there was a burden to bear?
    I think I could learn a lot from your experience in that regard...

  3. My perspective is different. Very few people in the US are truly poor, materially. Most of us have electricity and clean, running water. Most of us have a stable place to lay our heads. And most of us live on more than a dollar a day. From a global perspective, we are quite rich.

    Yet what we do have, especially in neighborhoods like mine, is a poverty of perception and a poverty of opportunity.

    By 'poverty of perception' I mean that we see ourselves as poor. Even those of us in the middle class see ourselves as significantly less-well-off than others. That "glass-half-full" mentality incites my desire to clamor for more. I become malcontent with the blessings I have. I find that to be very true of many of my neighbors. And, my short answer is that much of our perception is driven by the advertizing we are bombarded by everyday. I think we could go a long way toward changing our discontentment and 'perception of poverty' if we simply shutoff our TVs.

    More serious than our perceived poverty is, of course, real poverty. And even here in the States, the inequities that are most real, are the stark differences in opportunities. Some, from birth, are on a path toward Harvard University -- and significant social capital. While many others seem almost fated to matriculate to a cell block. These real differences in opportunity -- in starting social position -- are devastatingly cruel.

    So Ariah, you mention the inequity between school systems, and that is very real. Inadequate education, even when freely available, is impoverishing. And Mindy, I hear your indignation -- your desire to see us "walk the talk" around these inequities, and I agree. And yet education is a behemoth that very few seem to offer any concrete solutions. And all the adoption in the world won't fix our babies families of origin.

    I think the most important weapon we have in the fight against both perceived and real poverty (not material poverty, but poverty of opportunity) is a father. In both financial and socio-emotional terms, having a father (and mother) in one home, together, changes the game. Families led by mom and dad have more money, and on the whole, the children of those familes are much more socially well-adjusted. Most (but certainly not all) of our leaders come from these kinds of families -- regardless of relative their material lack. And I have no idea how to restore the hearts of the fathers back to their children. This 'restorative' work is prophetic work.

    [See for an example of what I mean]

  4. Great comments. I am definitely in agreemnent with each of you, although I think Ariah's piercing question is maybe the most relevant for me.

    I have come alongside the families in need that I know, almost esxclusively, through working in the Church, the Nonprofit sector, and in the Public Schools. I truly believe that where you work dictates a lot of how you frame the world and who you have an opportunity to engage. Where you live is also a key factor - although poverty is pretty much everywhere (except in REALLY wealthy suburbs).

    My life is an interesting journey with families from every racial and socioeconomic place. My momma is from Jamaica, and my Jamaican family and friends are really poor - Developing Nation poor! I also have good friends and mentors who are millionaires. It is really quite interesting to live with a foot in both worlds.

    Marcus, you referenced the father vacuum in America - particularly in the inner-City. It is a strong point, yet the argument could be made that education is the key; the difference in lifetime earning potential between a HS Diploma and a BS degree is over $1M.

    So I think what we can do is:

    1) Get educated on the systemic causes of poverty, both domestic and international (read The Mystery of Capital and The Origin of Wealth)

    2) Get a grasp on our own local Cities/Parishes, and learn who is doing good work

    3) Leverage our relationships to bring justice and value to those in our sphere of influence

    4) Advocate

    5) Foster, adopt, and provide respite care as we are able

    This is really a tall order!!

  5. Welcome back, Chris!

    One thougth on Marcus' comment about fathers: I disagree that education is the key. At least from this angle: Fatherless kids tend to wind up at the bottom of the educational totem pole.

    Chicago has so many iitiatives to get kids into school and to educate them, but the results are still abysmal. Yet kids who have involved fathers fare FAR better. If that is not addressed, everything else we do will be superflous at worst, and WAAAY harder at best. Kids need stable families.

    Men need to be reached with the gospel. When they love Jesus they tend to be much better citizens and husbands and fathers and employees, etc.

    BTW - we have one adopted child and one foster child in addition to our two biological kids. Their stories are so sad. All the more reason for us to do this ministry.

  6. Hi Steve. I feel you on the "fathering" front. I work in a school system where fathering is very low as a total percentage of our students. This is not only true in communities of color, it is true everywhere. A father can be "absent" through traveling, long hours, or plain old disengagement - can I get an "amen?"

    How do we reach men who are disengaged, disinterested, and often in prison?

  7. One step is to return to a more biblical, 'militant' Christianity. I'm with Mark Driscoll on this one. Following Jesus is a mission and an adventure and is costly. I think many men are attracted to that.

    The 'feminized' version of contemporary Christianity we're frequently presenting at the moment is bound to disengage men. And I'm talking about the guys already in church - I think unbelievers aren't necessarily paying attention. I'm not suggesting we make Christianity "more attractive" for the unbeliever - I'm suggesting that by bringing it back to a more biblical paradigm we will do a much better job of engaging the guys who are already under the roof, and they might go out and get some of those unbeliever dads and husbands and sons and brothers.

  8. I have a couple of comments to put out here:

    First of all, I agree with Marcus about what real poverty is. Our issue in the US is a lack of contentment. We would go along way to solve the needs of our world if we would learn to live within our means. Rather than consume everything we are told we need and run up credit bills we can never pay off. Read Philippians 4 for more explanation on how to do this.

    Secondly, fatherlessness in my opinion, is one of the biggest keys to poverty. I have had a real heart for this for many years. Living in north Minneapolis and working here it is obvious every time I drive around the neighborhood. I have begun to pray for God to raise up men who have a heart for the next generation. I work with fathers. Many of them feel guilty for the mistakes they've made. They don't know how to corect them. So they do nothing. Many of them have difficult relationships with the mothers of their children and the kids suffer as a result. Many of them are trying to piece their own lives back together and want help and support for that before they can think about giving back.

    A lot of children are being raised by single moms who have their first children when they are still children, are dependant on government assistance and the kids grow up seeing that as the good life.

    My opinion is that we need to invest in parks and community centers. Volunteer to coach a football or basketball team. I do this and find it an awesome way to teach young boys that they are valuable and affirm them in their abilities and (more often) their effort. But I've also found ways to affirm the (boys) that exist in the minds of these fathers. Our belief system dictates our behavior.

    A lot of ranting, I hope it adds depth to the discussion.