Hungry kids and why they exist

Despite the fact that one in five kids in America lives below the poverty level and that one in 45 kids are homeless, it has become increasingly clear to me that the average American doesn’t believe that they see poverty despite the fact that poverty is all around us. Media images of poverty, tend to show a face that is brown or Black or faces that are faraway. I think this creates a situation where it is  is hard for us to imagine that our kids may actually go to school with poor kids. Or that we may even know people who are skipping meals to make their food stretch longer, and who meet the technical definition of food insecure.  Poverty in 2012 is hidden if you don’t know what to look for, in my case, 15 years of working with the poor in several states and for me, the poor are everywhere.

Last week Frontline aired a piece called “Poor Kids and for many people it was an eye opening experience. I had a chance to engage online with a few people during the airing who were literally blown away, unaware of the depth of what poverty really looks like in 2012 and who its victims are.

I had a chance to watch Poor Kids and any of the kids featured could have been the kids I see daily in my work. Kids who are all too aware of what lack and scarcity means, kids who have a familiarity with food pantries and other assistance programs that no young child should have to have. Kids whose firsthand knowledge of poverty and scarcity has taken away their youthful innocence and belief. Poverty’s scars start early and last a lifetime.

A few days after the airing of Poor Kids, I saw the question asked “How does a child in the US go hungry.” Until this afternoon, I didn’t have the words to answer that question, but after today I may be closer to an answer.

Rarely do I work directly with kids in my program anymore; as our staffing has grown and my duties have increased, there simply isn’t time. However local parents know that my door is always open to them if they have a request or simply need to talk.  Today one of the local moms came to ask my assistance in creating a budget. I have made no secret of the fact  that I grew up working class and in my early days as a young wife and later single Mama, I didn’t have much money. I have always thought my experiences brought me a certain amount of street cred since unlike many social service providers, I thought I knew about being broke…I learned today that I know jack. Really.

Long story short, this young single mother of three kids including a pre-teen has a monthly income of $1234 and gets SNAP benefits. After we went through her basic living bills like rent and lights, she has a whopping $274 a month left to cover the toilet paper, tampons, toothpaste, gifts for kids, aspirin. Turns out the SNAP benefits don’t cover all the food costs, so she regularly must go to the food pantry to make her ends meet. This strong beautiful woman has no car, and walks everywhere sometimes upwards of 3-4 miles in one direction to get the best deal on foods with kids in tow.

It hit me that when we look at the actual amounts of money that people are living off of, it is very easy to see how a child can go hungry in this country. For starters, social service providers vary from area to area. In larger cities such as my hometown of Chicago, there are lots of social services and allied agencies ran by professional staffs and are typically better funded than their counterparts in rural or less populous states. I have joked; it really is much nicer being poor in a large city.  In state’s like Maine and similar sized states, social services is often a hodge podge of services often with overworked and really underpaid staff and well-meaning volunteers and frankly not enough services to assist all that need help. I learned today that there is no assistance for security deposits in the town I work in. This young mother who is moving out of a bedbug infested building into a clean and safe place will have to spend every single dollar she has for the next two months to cover her first month’s rent and security deposit which her new landlord is so generously letting her pay in installments.

Think about that. For the next two months this woman will have no money to pay even her light bill (but once she gets a disconnection notice then she can apply for help with the lights) or buy tampons, all so that she can have her kids in a safe and clean place.  That means these kids are at an even greater risk of going without a meal, sadly this story isn’t unique, it’s the story of millions trapped in poverty.

Kids go hungry in America because the resources that exist are not equally distributed. The social safety net is a string and private charities are not equally funded and the needs outweigh the means. It means that I can serve 400+ kids on an annual budget of a hair under $100,000 and with lots of prayers and dedicated volunteers and a staff that believes in the work as much as I do so much that we all work for far less than market value to assist. Yet in larger cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. an agency that serves the same amount of youth will operate on a budget 10-15 times the size of mine.  Until we see all kids and people as equal regardless of location, race, etc. we won’t stop seeing hungry kids.