This Christmas season 15.5 million children in America are living in poverty -- the highest child poverty rate the nation has seen since 1959. Officially, poverty means living in a family of four with an income below $22,050, a family of three with an income less than $18,310, and a family of two with an income below $14,570. This is what the federal government determines to be the amount needed for a minimum standard of living in America. For poor children, though, poverty means more than lack of money. For them, it can be a life sentence of exile from the larger society.
The Children’s Defense Fund commissioned Julia Cass, an award-winning journalist, to prepare a report on child poverty and to interview poor children and families. She began in Quitman County, Mississippi, a touchstone of poverty in America that was the starting point of the 1968 Poor People's Campaign.
There, she made a startling discovery: Enriching experiences for children are so meager and government aid so spotty that after school tutoring and reading programs in Quitman and three other Mississippi Delta counties are financed by what is essentially foreign aid—The Bernard van Leer Foundation of the Netherlands.
"The foundation focuses on children and families in what it refers to as oppressed societies," said Betty Ward Fletcher. Her Jackson-based consulting firm was contracted by the Dutch foundation to help it design a program in Mississippi, called Children's Villages, for children aged 5 to 14. "Some of its people wondered why it should be working in the most affluent country in the world, but they decided the reality is, we have poor children in this country who are denied the opportunity to be all they can be." Fletcher heard of a ten-year-old boy consistently breaking into homes. He would eat and play on the computer and then leave.
People and jobs are leaving Quitman County, as in other parts of rural America. Adults without the money or education to make it elsewhere are stuck—and their children are stuck with them.
A good education is a major escape route but it is a well-known disgrace that America's poorest children generally go to the worst schools, which perpetuates disadvantage. A study done by the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trusts found that of American children born to parents in the bottom fifth income level, 42 percent—and 54 percent of African American children—remained there as adults.
Only about 30 percent of the children who graduate from Quitman County's Madison Palmer High School go to college, primarily to the two junior colleges in neighboring counties. About two graduates a year have the test scores and scholarships to make it to the University of Mississippi. Very few go to colleges outside Mississippi and none make it to an Ivy League or top-drawer private college or university.
The report's profile of Audrey, a 13-year-old African-American girl in Lambert (pop. 1,967) illustrates the confluence of social, psychological and environmental risks that trap children in lifelong poverty. Her mother Grace, a diabetic, worked as a housekeeper in a casino in Tunica County, 50 miles away, until 2008 when the toes on her left foot had to be amputated. Grace, Audrey and Alexis, a three-year-old Grace cared for, were living in a brick house in the town of Lambert with exposed rafters and only one working heater.
Audrey fell several years behind in school primarily because of suspensions. She gets into battles with kids who call her "snaggle tooth" because of a broken front tooth and into power struggles with teachers she believes disrespect her. She's also had seizures and been taken to the hospital. "She gets angry and stops breathing" Grace said. "They said at the hospital that I should take her to mental health but everything costs."
At loose ends on one of her suspended days, Audrey wandered by boarded-up building after falling-down building and said something that captures the oppressiveness of poverty. She could have been speaking for most of the children interviewed for the report—other poor children in Quitman County, Katrina-displaced children in Baton Rouge, and to a lesser degree, children of the newly poor on Long Island, New York.
Asked if she felt isolated in her declining town, Audrey responded, "Yeah. Isolated. Remote island. Held captive."
The report, "Held Captive: Child Poverty in America", can be read online at www.childrensdefense.org.