This week my juniors have been reading an excerpt from Richard Wright’s autobiography, “Black Boy,” an unflinching look at what happens to the children of the poor. Born in Mississippi in 1908, Wright, the grandson of freed slaves, experienced grinding poverty. His parents moved to Memphis to find work and left six year-old Wright and his younger brother alone at home with almost nothing to eat and neighborhood bullies to fight off. When his parents separated, his desperate mother was forced to put her sons in an orphanage.
At every turn the adults in Wright’s life made questionable decisions – but understandable ones, given the lack of social and legal recourses available. Most tragic was the effect on their sensitive child, making him bitter and angry.
It’s a cautionary tale that rings true to my students. Most of them have families that struggle financially. They are growing up poor in the South, the part of the country with the largest number of impoverished children, and it shows.
In the United States, the federal poverty threshold (FPT) is $24,036 for a family of four with two children. Families need an income at least two times the FPT to meet their basic needs, so those who fall below that threshold are classified as low income.
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Poverty is also relative depending on where you live in the country. A family of four in Boston needs $85,800 to make ends meet annually. A family in McAllen, Texas, can get by with $53,600, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s Family Budget Calculator.
According to the 2015 Census data, 43 percent of all American children live in low-income families. The vast majority – 11 million – are white. More than 60 percent of all black, Hispanic, and American Indian children live in low-income families. More than half of those families have at least one parent working full-time. About half of low-income children live with married parents.
When Representative Jason Chaffetz quipped that poor people should choose health insurance over a flashy new phone, he echoed a long-running resentment and scorn that people with means have always had for the poor. In Victorian England, young Charles Dickens had to go to work at a boot black factory to help his father pay to get out of a debtor’s workhouse, an institution designed to inflict such misery on the poor that they would give up their indolent ways. Then, just as now, the economic realities of poverty were misunderstood or willfully ignored, and poverty was considered a failure of individual morality rather than a systemic issue.
That’s not to say that poor people don’t make bad decisions, but the larger reasons for poverty are economic and political, and the solutions have to begin there.
This week Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Congressmen Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) and Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) sponsored the reintroduction of the Homeless Children and Youth Act, making funds available to help the 1.2 million homeless children in America. That’s a start. Now we need bipartisan opposition to the block grants and per capita caps on Medicaid proposed in the American Health Care Act, measures that will harm poor children. We also need bipartisan support of tax credits that help working families.
If we don’t make poor children a priority, we will visit upon another generation the miseries that Richard Wright described and which too many of my students know firsthand.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org