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What Do I Say When a 10-Year-Old Sweetly Turns to Me and Asks, "Maybe Poor People Just Shouldn't Be allowed to have babies?"

03/27/2015 05:41 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

I get asked a lot of questions in my line of work. When you start a nonprofit diaper bank out of your basement and it grows quickly, people want to know about it. People wonder about the logistics (How do you do inventory? How do you distribute 75,000 diapers in a morning?) and donations (Where do the diapers come from?) and who receives them (Where do the babies live?) and why do families need diapers (Why are these families not able to afford diapers? Why aren't they covered by food stamps? Or WIC?). Most of the questions I've answered often, and I can usually see where their minds are going as they ask them; there's a natural progression from asking about the detailed day to day to asking about the need.

But the questions that get me, the ones that I turn over and over in my mind searching for better answers to are the ones that come from kids. I taught junior high, and I learned very quickly that middle school kids will casually ask gut wrenching and deeply honest questions. They have not yet been taught not to ask them. The latest question to lodge in my brain came from a really lovely 10-year-old girl who volunteered with her schoolmates.

She was at the snack table grabbing a water break and a cookie, and I asked her how she liked volunteering.
" Yeah, I like it. It's fun to wrap the diapers. I have a system down."
"Awesome. Sometimes it take a group a little while to get the hang of it, but you all dove right in."
" Yeah. I was thinking that maybe poor people just shouldn't be allowed to have babies then we wouldn't need to give them diapers?"

And my heart stops for a minute.

The thing is I get this question a lot. I get it from anonymous internet posters and unsigned emails. I get it from people who shake their heads at me at diaper drives and cocktail parties. But all those people are adults, and they aren't saying it necessarily because they think it's a good idea - they are saying it for a reaction. They are saying it to stake a position. Or they aren't saying it; they are thinking it secretly, and feeling badly about it because they honestly don't know what to do about the rising number of hungry children.

For a couple weeks I routinely asked others how they would have responded to this girl. I asked in appropriate and totally inappropriate places - at dinner parties and at office holiday parties, on the playground and a high school alumnae event. I was tempted to post it on Facebook and thought better of it.

I got a lot of amazing responses:

"'Poor' isn't a permanent state of being. Circumstances change."

"Plans derail. No one plans to be a poor parent."

"Two words: Great Recession."

This one - "Poor didn't used to mean 'morally insufficient,' it used to just mean you didn't have a lot of money at the moment. Being poor wasn't this multifaceted all encompassing life sentence. I don't know when it changed." This answer made me think so much about how we talk about poverty - living in poverty, being poor - all encompassing ways of existing.

"Think of all the people who had poor parents and led incredible lives - where would we be without those poor babies?" And I started to think about it - the list is long.

The one that made my brain spin in a totally different direction was a middle-aged woman who simply said, "What about joy? Don't we all deserve the joy of parenting? It's part of being human."

All of these would have been incredible responses, ones I wished I had thought of that afternoon, holding a half-eaten cookie, when that young girl offered up a solution to the problem of poor babies. But I didn't. Instead, my mind racing with all the ways to combat her idea, I looked at her for a moment and just said, "No, sweetie, no. Being poor doesn't mean you're unable to be a good parent." And she said, "Okay." And walked off.

The other thing I know from teaching is that I tended to imbue all student questions with deep meaning when sometimes a kid was just trying out a thought out loud, something we hadn't untaught them yet. So my re-do answer - my answer to that young volunteer and to all the people who ask that question out loud or silently, out of anger or position or confusion or concern, is a simple one: Tell me how that would help? Tell me what world you want to live in?

Because as plans to cut food stamps again swirl around and politicians talk about the need to "change the conversation" about poverty, we need to have this question and questions about our responsibility to ourselves and our fellow citizens be part of the discussion - out loud and without shame.