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Child Watch® Column: "Poor Children: Stranded at Sea"

Release Date: March 18, 2011

Marian Wright Edelman

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.


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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Level playing field at: March 21, 2011
your analogy is interesting; I have my own that I have use when trying to explain my life. There is a a "level playing field" (starting line) and it's where function lives - many of us spend most of our lives just struggling to get to this "level playing field" or (starting line) while many start at the functioning level and more than likely move up; there are those who have no idea what a functional life is and struggle to learn this and fit in. I have been asked by many how I survived and others in my family have not. I do know that what is commom to many functional families; family support, healthy food, safe-happy family time, dentist visits, eye doctor, physicals etc do not exist. My parents did the best they knew how; I am doing the best I know how; I pray my kids forgive me for my ignorance along the way and with both in college are able to join the Level Playing Field. Thank God for our angels along the way

Submitted by penny at: March 21, 2011
The reason the government is willing to help the auto, banking and other industries is because they benefit the rich to do so. In this country follow the money trail to all of the ills in the world. The problem with capitalism is that greed eventually invades the whole process and with socialism you run out of other peoples money - so there is nothing to be made by the wealthy to take care of the poor or support the poor, we would rather try to build more prisons to house the people that have been lost and have no means of supporting themselves or other. Shame on the rich and the government for supporting and keeping people poor.

Submitted by consuela at: March 21, 2011
What will it take to get this country to invest in its children?

Submitted by Felicitas at: March 18, 2011
Since working inner city Chicago in 1958 and experiencing no public kindergartens in VA in 1963 (when I had gone to public kindergarten in NY in 1942)and then organizing a desegregated pre-school program for low-come children in Charlottesville in 1965, I strongly believe that ALL children age 3 months and older of families receiving tax aid (parent in prison, welfare to work, medicaid) should be mandated to attend 8-hour-a day day care to receive love, structure, nutritious meals, music, reading, and much more. And IF the child does not attend the program, she/he is put into foster care where the foster parent/s will get the child to such day care. In Virginia we will spend $30,000 a year per prisoner and will not fund such early day care for our low-income children. For the sake of these, our young poor, we MUST stop the cycle of birth to prison, and I believe such a mandatory day care program for families receiving our tax dollars as mentioned above would turn these children's lives around.

Submitted by Jackie O at: March 18, 2011
Look at one child.Get to know that child---hi/her hopes, dreams and future. Each and every child with the support behing them can succeed.I have a dream "WE"start to be the voices of our children. Good parents,good teachers, good role models, good school administratersand good law makers equal success for our children. Stand infront of, behind and round our children and they WILL GO FORWARD.Never before did I ever think that I would actually live to see the fall of our country BUT NOW ! If we do not put ALL OUR children FIRST, it WILL BE the beginning of the end. We can not compete with the other nations of the world if our children are not provided with the BEST EDUCATION, health care and a job at the end of the rainbow. We all need to instill in every child we have contact with that they "can succeed" and that there is a future for them better than the what they see around them. Our mommas and pappas did for us now it is our turn !

Submitted by Beth at: March 18, 2011
Powerful! Should be printed as an Op/Ed in major newspapers!

Submitted by Gwen at: March 18, 2011
Excellent reporting reality

Submitted by Gwen at: March 18, 2011
Excellent reporting reality