Childhood Poverty: A View From Abroad

02/02/2012 07:36 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012
  • Ross LaJeunesse Global Head of Free Expression and International Relations, Google Inc.

This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children and Julianne Moore. Moore leads the organization's Valentine's Day campaign, through which cards are sold to support the fight against poverty in the U.S. To learn more or to purchase the cards, click here.

There are more than five million Americans living and working overseas as teachers, journalists, students or, like me, in business. Expatriates, or "expats" as we're more commonly called, have decided to live abroad for any number of reasons -- out of a sense of adventure, to learn more about the world, to seek fame or fortune, and sometimes expats have left the U.S. because they feel a deeper connection with another country's culture.

For me, living in Hong Kong and traveling throughout Asia the past two years has had a remarkable effect on my sense of patriotism. It's about more than just homesickness or a greater appreciation for our rights and freedoms. It's about the United States' role as a beacon to the world.

Many Americans may not fully grasp the incredible global influence of our movies and culture, our laws and policies, our innovations in technology and, most of all, our engrained belief that anything is possible.

As an American, one of the most difficult things traveling across Asia is the heartbreaking poverty I've witnessed.

In Afghanistan, I visited orphanages that were overcrowded with children who've lost everyone and everything to years of war and violence. And these were the lucky few, as countless children live on the street with no one to care for them. In India, almost half of all toddlers and infants under five are malnourished. In many parts of Southeast Asia, thriving business districts are located within a hundred yards of horrible slums without potable water or electricity.

In these situations, it's easy to feel fortunate for being born in the United States and to think we'd never let such things happen in our country. And, I began to think how extraordinary it would be if we extended the uniquely American sense of possibility to a simple concept: ending poverty around the world.

But the fact is, ending poverty globally means that we have to address the critical needs of millions of our fellow Americans as well.

Some may argue that the severity of poverty in places like India and Afghanistan should take priority over the needs of the record 46 million people living in poverty in the United States. There's no doubt that the threshold for poverty in the U.S. -- $22,000 per year for a family of four -- would ensure health and wealth for millions of families in the poorest countries.

Others argue that as Americans, we should take care of "our own" and let the rest of the world solve its own problems.

I reject the view that fighting poverty is a choice between home and abroad -- or between the poor and the poorest. We can and must do both.

The fight against poverty should begin with the group most affected by this crisis: our kids. Today, nearly 1 in 4 kids in the United States lives in poverty and, the fact is, when you're born into poverty you're more likely to stay in poverty.

There's no question that if we can get to kids, especially during the earliest years, and ensure they have the health care, housing and education that every human being deserves, it will give them the tools they need to lead prosperous and successful lives.

President Johnson and Sargent Shriver began a war on poverty in the 1960s that dramatically reduced childhood poverty rates within a decade. Today, it's clear that we've surrendered, as current poverty rates for kids are back to 1960s levels.

We can renew this fight.

To begin, we need deeper investments from federal and state governments. And we need more innovative efforts, like the early education and literacy work of Save the Children's U.S. Programs, led by Shriver's son, Mark.

Google is helping. In 2011, we contributed over $100 million to non-profits around the world, and provided an additional $1 billion in free applications and advertising. Google employees also gave over 50,000 hours of volunteer time, with the full support and encouragement of the company.

Everyone has a role to play, and we can start with creating a national will to act.

Imagine if we eradicated childhood poverty in the United States. It would give our kids what they deserve. It would make us an even greater nation, better able to compete in the global economy, and it could spark change around the world.