The latest edition of UNICEF's report on child poverty showed the United States ranks second out of 35 developed countries on the scale of what economists call “relative child poverty” with 23.1 percent of its children living in poverty. Only Romania ranked higher. It was another shameful reminder that, as economist Sheldon Danziger put it, “Among rich countries, the U.S. is exceptional. We are exceptional in our tolerance of poverty.”
For the Lynch family in Columbus, Ohio, headlines like this aren’t news. Lucille Lynch and her children Sarafina, 17, Timeeka, 14, Daisha, 11, and Elijah, 10, live on just slightly over half of the federal poverty level. The family’s only cash income is the combined $1,200 per month Social Security disability checks for Elijah, who has autism, and for Lucille, who suffers from a lung condition, along with occasional and minimal child support. Their family is a portrait of deep poverty in America. In 2010 20.5 million Americans were living on less than half of the federal poverty level.
The Lynches live in isolation in a dark house in a dangerous neighborhood between several main roads. A church that helps the family built a chain link fence around the house so Elijah can’t run out into the street. A block and a half away is a group home for sex offenders. Lucille gets advisory flyers in the mail with photographs of the men and their offenses -- rape and gross sexual imposition were listed on two of the flyers on the living room table the day Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Cass met the family while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund. “It’s scary to know that,” Daisha said. “You don’t want to go out in the street because of them.”
Lucille, 47, considers herself lucky she has the house which she inherited from her parents. She left high school in the 11th grade -- “It was horrible and I couldn’t learn. There was too much violence.” Later she took classes and became certified as a nursing aide and for seven years she worked in nursing homes bathing, dressing, and diapering patients. But in 2006 she began feeling ill and by the next year, “I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t lift them anymore at all.” She was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, which causes inflammation of the lungs, and had to stop working. She’s done occasional babysitting since then.
One of the many sad consequences of deep poverty is that autism often goes undiagnosed longer, which is critical because many therapies for autism are most effective when they begin before age three. Elijah was diagnosed at five. Lucille said she knew something was wrong because “he wasn’t speaking. He wasn’t looking at people.” But pediatricians told her to wait and see if he improved and he wasn’t tested until he reached kindergarten age.
When Elijah was eight he began having problems in his special education classroom. Lucille eventually found out a child sitting behind him on the school bus was hitting him and another in his classroom was choking him. She said that school had one teacher and one aide trying to handle two classrooms full of children with different special needs. Lucille took him out of school and enrolled him in Buckeye Online -- a statewide private charter school that gives online instruction and receives money from the public education system.
The three girls experienced school violence, too, and now Sarafina and Daisha also stay at home and study with Buckeye Online, which provided two computers for the family to use. Sarafina was just starting middle school when she had a gun pulled on her. Daisha left school three years ago. “I didn’t really talk to other kids because they were so mean to me,” she said. “I got into a fight once but I didn’t want to fight but I had to because they kept hitting me. Nobody stopped them.” Online schooling means the children are isolated at home. Church is their major outside activity.
The family of five receives $583 a month in food stamps. They go to food pantries and raise tomatoes in pots but they often are down to peanut butter sandwiches at the end of the month and regularly eat filling, starchy foods like rice, pasta, and potatoes.
Lucille is hoping her children will “do better” than she did. She has the idea that art might help them get ahead because they all have the family talent for it. “There’s a lady who volunteers at the church, an artist,” Lucille said. “She’s going to help them make portfolios. Sarafina wants to present hers to the Columbus College of Art and Design.” Lucille is still holding onto the American Dream for her children -- but for now, the Lynches are living a much sadder American reality.
At the Children’s Defense Fund National Conference in Cincinnati July 22-25 we will have a series of plenaries, mini-plenaries, and workshops focused on economic inequality and child poverty. Join us to learn more about what we know works to reduce poverty -- and how we can work together to insist we do what works and set different national priorities. It’s time to end child poverty in rich America.