Poverty is lethal — and it’s not necessary

These things all take time, something that poor people have very little to spare.

I saw a meme the other day about how to nurture a child. It included things like reading together, praising, practicing relaxation exercises together, taking walks together — the operative word here, of course, is together.
It all boiled down to quality time, and it set something off in me.
I commented that people in poverty, people who have to work two and three jobs just to keep body and soul together, might not be able to do all these things, and some woman said, “These things don’t take money, LOL.”
I was furious.
LOL? Really? I asked her whether she had ever skipped a meal to make sure there was enough, for the kids, LOL. I mean, that one’s a regular LOL riot, isn’t it?
People with the privilege of a living wage have no idea what it’s like to live in poverty, of how the system keeps poor people down.
Let’s say your three $8-an-hour part-time jobs pay the rent and for food, but just barely. You’re already working 60-plus hours a week, so you can’t just get another job. Your crappy apartment is $1,200 a month and the landlord won’t take care of the leaky faucet or the hole in the kitchen floor. The heat quits regularly. But this is the best you can find for what you can pay.
Poor people can’t afford a flat tire. Poor people can’t afford to be sick.
So, let’s say the flat tire means the utility bill is late. When the power gets shut off, you don’t just have to pay the amount due, you have to pay a service charge, which might make your rent late this month.
When you get home to your kids, it’s already supper time. Have they done their homework? Well, you can ask that after supper, unless, of course, it’s already bed time. Should you read to your child or do the laundry? Last time your kid showed up to school in a dirty shirt, the school threatened to call in Child Protection Services for neglect. So you do the laundry.
If you can’t afford a car — and  millions of low-wage workers can’t — you need bus service, which just isn’t available in rural areas, and in bigger towns and cities, a bus ride across town can be an hour and a half.
And what about when you have to work evenings or weekends? There are no child care centers open for evening, overnight or weekend shifts.
Poverty is completely unnecessary. It is a political construct designed to create a permanent underclass to serve the very wealthy.
When my boys were little, the only way I could get help with day care was to quit my job and go on Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
I decided to work. I worked hard, but I just couldn’t get ahead. Every time I got caught up, something happened to set me back — and when you’re barely getting by, a flat tire can set you back six months. Forget about a new starter or alternator. I once spent a month parking my car on hills so I could do a rolling start because I couldn’t afford a new starter.
When my older son was 7 he became a latchkey kid because I had money for groceries or day care, but not for both. He would call me when he got home from school, and when I hung up, I would go into the bathroom and cry because I couldn’t take care of him the way I wanted to.
The school was constantly after me because my younger son was severely ADHD and they wanted him on drugs, even though his grades were stellar and he consistently tested in the 98th and 99th percentile in verbal abilities, reading and math. Finally, they reported me to Child Protection Services for neglect. I couldn’t afford an attorney to fight it, so we tried the Ritalin. He hated it. Said he didn’t feel like himself when he took it. But the teacher was happy because he wasn’t up out of his seat during class.
After 3 months, he begged me to take him off the drugs. I told him he would have to find a way to sit still because the risk of him being taken away from me was very real.
I couldn’t afford private school, which would have recognized his abilities, so we had to do this right in a public school setting where the most important thing wasn’t his brilliance, but the teacher’s need to have a quiet classroom.
Michael stayed in his seat every day for three months. When his teacher called to say he’d been disruptive that day, I confessed we’d thrown away the last three months’ supply of the drug and we would not put him back on it under any circumstances. I threatened to go public if they attempted to take him from me, and they let it go.
By this time, I had remarried and although I still couldn’t afford an attorney, I was not in poverty any longer.
But then Michael started experimenting with drugs, and by the time he was 15, he was dabbling in all kinds of stuff. Later, after he’d been clean and sober for several years, he told me the gateway drug had been Ritalin. It had altered his mind when he was on it, and made him wonder what other drugs might do. He insisted he wouldn’t have tried other drugs if he’d not been on Ritalin. I believed him.
At age 19, he took some time off school and was removed from our insurance plan. We didn’t realize that time off school would mean he’d never be able to buy insurance again, and in Savannah, Ga., no doctor would do a damn thing for him until it was too late to save his life. That time off school turned out to be a death sentence for him.
Poverty is lethal. It is deeply, deeply immoral. People who are affected by it suffer and die needlessly, while people of privilege call them lazy.
Poverty is a choice made by legislators and policymakers to allow some people to suffer. And it must end.

‘What about the children?’

That’s a question I recall hearing again and again during the 1980s and 90s as a reporter covering family issues, social justice issues and education. It came mostly from upper-middle class people in good school districts who were concerned about their children’s welfare, class size, access to computers at school and with limiting kids’ access to such horrible things as dirty words and suggestive song lyrics.

They were genuinely concerned about their own children, especially the ones who decided to run for the school board. All of them claimed they were running “for the children.” One even said, “I’m doing it for the kiddles.” I asked if she really wanted that quote to go under her photo alongside “Reason for running:”

Some ran so they could work to get their Evangelical views into the classroom. I usually recognized the buzzwords they used, such as “intellectual freedom to teach different ideas,” and of course, “intelligent design.”

One of my colleagues once said in the midst of the campaign season, “I wish just one person would be honest and tell us he’s running so he can have power over something.”

At least people wanted to be involved. Today, some school boards have vacancies they can’t fill. Schools are being attacked, as are most other institutions that help children.

While some of the nation’s wealthy seem to see public education as a form of welfare, programs that protect the welfare of children in every respect are being slashed.

Medicaid, which offers health care to the nation’s most needy, is about to be cut, compromising the health of millions of children; subsidized children’s health care for families that can’t afford insurance now has waiting lists so long it’s effectively shut down to new people in several states.

After-school programs, which keep children in a safe place until their parents can be home with them, are being defunded.

Parents are working several part-time or two full-time jobs just to make ends meet while child care subsidies are being slashed. That’s because in every city in the United States it takes at least two full-time jobs at minimum wage to make ends meet on even the most modest budget (no cable TV, no meals out …).

A few years ago, here in Western North Carolina, a working mother left her child in the car because she had no other option to care for him and she needed her job as a CNA in a nursing home to keep their small apartment. Her shifts were not the same as most child care center hours, so she had nowhere to leave him safely. She opted to leave him in the car and check on him periodically, rather than leave him home alone. The child died and the mother was villified. Most of my colleagues were outraged that a mother would endanger her 4-year-old like that.

But I remember being a single mom, struggling to pay my bills and find a safe place for my children while I worked. I had a boss who would let me bring them to the office with me if I had to work late or on Saturday. I had an upstairs neighbor who would look after my older son if he needed anything — he was a latchkey kid when he was 8 because I couldn’t afford to pay for care for both my boys and I couldn’t get a subsidy unless I quit work and went on welfare.

Today, one in five children lives in poverty, likely not getting the nutrition they need to stay healthy or the intellectual stimulation they need to overcome poverty when they get older. They are less likely to have access to a computer, or even good books. They are more likely to have health and/or behavioral problems, to drop out of school, to turn to crime and to remain poor as adults.

Even so, as we “negotiate” how to cut government spending, children’s needs once again are on the table, but not the wants of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans who control a staggering 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. Heaven forbid we ask for shared sacrifice from them or from behemouth corporations that pay little or no tax.

So, what about the children?


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