The Poverty of American Youth
By: Theresa Oliver
For my first blog, I was debating on the way home today what topic I could address, what wonderful bits of humor I could convey, a writing workshop, or perhaps a touching or alarming personal experience that might help inspire, or entertain others.
Then I thought of my students.
I’d like you to meet a few of my students and another teenage friend of the family. All of their names have been changed.
· About a month ago, Annie came to me with a smile and told me that her father had just gotten out of jail. I smiled and congratulated her. She was so very excited to have her father back that my heart went out to her. Then a few weeks ago, Annie came to me frowning and told me that her father was back in jail. I consoled her, telling her that I was sure he’d get out soon. My heart again, went out to her, amazed that this second grade student would have to be faced with a situation that many adults would have difficulty with. Then, she approached me last weekend, telling me that her family had no water in the house, but her mom was trying to save the money to get the water turned back on. I asked her how long they had been without water and she said, “Since my dad went back to jail.”
“What do you drink?” I asked, and she replied that her mother bought bottled water. “How do you take a bath?” I asked, but she only shrugged her shoulders. Needless to say I phoned the powers that be immediately.
· Yesterday, I was waiting for the buses to be called with a student, Sam. The first round of buses had already been called and there were only four of us left in the classroom. Sam approached me and told me, “Guess what?”
“What?” I asked with a smile, expecting something cute to come from this little angel.
“My little brother wasn’t going to get a Christmas gift this year, so I saved my money and got him one,” Sam began. “He’s only four.”
Trying to keep my composure, I asked in a low voice, “Oh, he wasn’t going to get a Christmas present this year?”
He replied, “No, only clothes, but he wanted a toy. So I saved my money and got him one,” then he added happily, “no one in my family was going to get Christmas presents, but my brother and I saved our money together and got a present for everyone in my family.”
My heart went out to him. Most children his age are wondering what they are getting for Christmas, but here was this little angel thinking of others instead of himself.
· Now meet Mary. She is a little thing, a pixie of a child who comes to school with clothes that are two sizes too small. She came to school the other day literally busting out of her shirt and her pant legs were very high. I called the powers that be again, and the next day, she had two brand new shirts. Today, she came to school, proudly wearing one of her new shirts, very appreciative, but still wearing the too-small pants.
“What size pants do you wear?” I asked privately, whispering, away from the other students.
“I’m not sure, but these are a 6,” she quietly replied.
I silently vowed that I would bring her the jeans my children had outgrown.
· Here’s Bob, a teenage boy who lives in a house where he rarely has a meal. His father’s depressed and his mother works two jobs. His father works, too, but, somehow, there is barely enough money to pay the bills and food is not a priority. I watched weekly as his weight steady began to decline. When he comes over to our house, we told him to help himself to anything in the cupboards or in the refrigerator. At first, he was much too timid for that, but now helps himself, and has quickly become a part of the family. He also wears old clothes. He’s a teenager who wants so much more out of life and is working very hard to achieve it, despite the fact that academics have always been a struggle for him. For Christmas, we got him a gift certificate to Burger King for $30, a restaurant down the street from his house, and you’d have thought we gave him a million dollars. We also gave him a new t-shirt and he was so excited he was shaking. The first thing he said was, “And here I didn’t get you anything!” We quickly assured him that our present was just seeing him succeed in life and to be happy.
Also, his cousin died recently in his arms shortly after being born, as a result from abuse of the father to the baby’s mother.
He, too, is dealing with so much more than any child, or teen, ever should.
In addition, the school where I work is a Title I school, within which many families live at or below the poverty level, despite that it’s a good school in a good neighborhood. In fact, many of our students live in hotels. However, there are programs set up at the school to aid these children, such as sending food home with them over the weekend so they can eat and providing school uniforms. They also hosted a toy drive and distributed these toys to needy families for Christmas.
Last year, 60 Minutes covered a story at our school, as steps were made to help over 70 families to move from hotels and into regular housing.
In a community where there are many rich businesses, such as Disney, Universal Studios, Sea World, and much more, it is hard to believe that so much poverty exists right in our backyards.
Youth Living in Poverty:
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, 15 million children in the U.S. live in poverty, that is, over 21 percent of all children live in families with incomes below the national poverty level of $21,050 annually for a family of four. Studies also show that on average, families need twice this amount to live. According to this information, over 42 percent of all children live in low-income families. Many of these families have parents that work in low-income, unstable jobs, causing difficulty in making ends meet.
According to the NCCP, poverty can hinder children’s ability to learn and contributes to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Poverty also contributes to poor mental health as well as poor health. In addition, risks are greater for children experiencing poverty in his or her youth. Research shows that “poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well being.”
However, studies show that effective public policies and interventions and providing learning experiences for the children can make a difference. According to the NCCP, investments in our most at-risk students are critical.
What You Can Do To Help
Having read this, you might ask, what can I do to help? The best thing that you can do is to go to your local school or school district and see what you can do to help. Making a small donation, donating school supplies, clothing, food and more can make a difference in the life of a child. It is my prayer that every child will one day be free of the chains of poverty, for we don’t have to go to foreign countries to find needy children. We can look right in our own backyards. Please contact your local school’s school counselor to see what you can do to help.