As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass prepared the recent Children’s Defense Fund’s report “Held Captive”: Child Poverty in America, she traveled to the Mississippi Delta, the ravaged cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana, and the birthplace of the suburban American dream in Long Island, New York to see several different sides of contemporary American child poverty. Despite the different circumstances children in these diverse communities faced, Cass found that there was something very familiar about the effects of child poverty everywhere she looked. The report’s title came from 13-year-old Audrey, who Cass met in rural Lambert, Mississippi. Cass heard Audrey say something “that captures the feeling of poverty that only those caught in it know and that could have been said by most all the children I met while researching this report. I remarked that Audrey seemed isolated in this decaying town where 34.5 percent of households live in poverty. ‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘Isolated. Remote island. Held captive.’”
For Cass, Audrey’s words summed up a particular truth about poor children’s lives. Cass found that most of the young children she talked to wished most for “ordinary things or experiences that most children who are not poor take for granted. Jillian, 8, who lives with her parents and brother in a single motel room in Hempstead, N.Y., described the bedroom she wants—real big, purple, with a pink princess bed and purple and white shelves for Barbie dolls. Jason, 9, has lived in 11 places in his short life and now stays in a homeless shelter in New Orleans. He wishes he could be ‘in an actual house with my own room and closet and stuff’ and be on a swimming team and go to the beach and surf.” But being “held captive” on the “remote island” of poverty, as Audrey describes it, puts even what may seem like ordinary childhood experiences impossibly out of reach. As Cass says: “For poor children… poverty means more than money. For them, it can be a life sentence of exile from the larger society… Poor children and children who are not poor live in utterly different worlds.”
Cass continues: “All parents, no matter how much money they have, need all the help they can get to raise happy, productive children, but parents who are not poor have more time and money to invest in them. They raise their children in decent, safe neighborhoods, send them to good schools, take them on trips, buy them books, bicycles and computers, get them counseling or tutoring if they need it, and music, or art lessons if they want them. They read to them and become involved in their school and other activities. They do this because they know it makes a difference, and even in tough economic times, they struggle to offer extras to their children. Think of it this way: Children who are not poor live on land. They can see the horizon and make choices and plans as they move forward into the future. They have opportunities, experiences and supports unknown by poor children. They are on the playing field.”
But, Cass says, “Poor children swim in a sea of poverty. It is all they know. They go to inferior schools and day care centers where everyone around them is poor. They live in poor, rundown, unsafe neighborhoods. Compared to other children, they are exposed to more family turmoil, violence, instability and chaotic households. They are read to infrequently by their under-educated parents, watch more TV, and have less access to books and computers. Their parents and almost everyone they know are poor and struggling. They lack nutritious food. They receive less social support. Most cannot see land no matter how hard they paddle. They give up and tread water. Too often, they flounder… Even a poor child who makes it onto land is not equally poised to be successful because the playing field is not even. Worse, many are left behind in the sea of poverty, never making it onto land at all.”
Cass sums up her metaphor this way: “The banking system, auto industry and other businesses considered ‘too big to fail’ are being rescued and subsidized. Children are small, and they are being allowed to fail. America is allowing children like Audrey to flop around in the sea of poverty. Over the past 40 years, America has added a patch here and there to the safety net, but has never made a serious, comprehensive, sustained effort to bring children out of the captivity of poverty even though the well-being of children is at least as important to the future as the health of banks and major industries—and vital to the American ideal of equal opportunity for all.” Like the child’s drawing of a small figure in a boat in CDF’s logo, we are leaving millions of poor children stranded on remote islands or drifting alone on a big sea.
Click here to read “Held Captive”: Child Poverty in America.