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The burden of Malachi’s world

Meet Malachi, a charming toddler I met here.

The first puzzle was that Malachi, at the age of 2 years and 4 months, still doesn’t speak. He says only two words: “no” and “ouch.” He doesn’t say “mom” or “dad.”

That leads to the second puzzle: Where are his mom and dad?

Candace Williams, 26, Malachi’s caregiver, seems to be doing a fine job. She said that Malachi’s mom, who lives in York, Pennsylvania, has 11 children and a drug problem and left him with her. Williams said the mom periodically asked her to look after Malachi but then wasn’t very diligent about picking him up.

“I would have him for months at a time,” Williams recalled.

Then, on the boy’s second birthday in February, Williams dropped by to wish him well. She said she found food and knives on the floor and the house in chaos. At that point, she said, the mom handed her the boy. As far as Williams is concerned, Malachi is now her child to raise, although she has no papers to document that.

And the boy’s father? He is in prison for a drug-related offense, Williams said.

As for his inability to speak, that may be because he has tested positive for lead poisoning - an echo of Freddie Gray, the black man whose arrest and subsequent death sparked the rioting in Baltimore. As a child, Gray also suffered from lead poisoning.

It should be a scandal that lead (mostly from old paint) still poisons 535,000 children in the United States from ages 1 to 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disproportionately affecting poor children, it robs them of mental abilities and is associated with disruptive behavior and crime in adulthood. If this were afflicting wealthy kids, there would be a national outcry.

Some 58 percent of whites said in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted in late April that the riots in Baltimore were the result of “people seeking an excuse to engage in looting and violence.” Many middle-class and affluent Americans don’t fully appreciate, I think, the inequity and frustrations boiling in some communities across the United States.

Malachi exemplifies the challenges some kids face in places like this. Americans often say that poverty is about bad choices or personal irresponsibility, but Malachi himself hasn’t made any bad choices.

I’m impressed by Williams’ commitment, and she’s getting no government assistance. Indeed, she recently lost her job as an armored truck driver - she said caring for Malachi interfered with her work - so there’s now greater financial pressures on the household.

It is easier, of course, to describe a problem than to prescribe a solution, and helping people is harder than it looks.

One valuable program is WIC, which provides nutritional support for women, infants and children. Yet because it gives free infant formula to low-income mothers, it unintentionally discourages breast-feeding.

“If I had to buy formula, with no WIC vouchers, I’d breast-feed,” Alia Brooks, a teenage single mom in Baltimore, told me.

In short, helping people is complicated. Yet we do have programs that help - not everyone, not all the time, but often. Indeed, WIC is among them.

That’s the reason for our win-a-trip reporting journey in America, to underscore that global poverty and inequity exist not just in India or Nepal, but right here in the United States, still waiting to be addressed.

Kristof is a New York Times columnist.

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