For many of the children and families we serve, poverty is a common denominator and the root cause of their vulnerability. The U.S. Census Bureau reported earlier this month that 15.5 million children live in poverty, which represents 9.3 percent of all children in the United States. Although some of this poverty is rooted in addiction, there are a number of causes behind the problem, many overlapping, such as homelessness, immigration status, language barriers, chronic illness, and disabilities. These causes contribute to the high rate of poverty among children and point to the failure of the “safety net” of services available to mitigate poverty in what many consider the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world.
Research demonstrates and our experience serving vulnerable families and children attests that children who are living in poverty are more likely to experience chronic health conditions, mental health problems, and educational challenges. These conditions experienced early on have a persistent and disabling impact on a child’s life, creating obstacles that are difficult to ever overcome.
When you look at the latest poverty statistics, it becomes clear that if we can effectively address these obstacles, the long-term benefits, not only for these families but our society, would be significant. With a presidential election on the horizon, why is it few of the candidates address this critical issue?
Not surprisingly, the candidates do talk about strategies to increase our overall economic security. Many would suggest that such prosperity would result in increased resources to address the root causes of poverty. Challenging this theory is the reality that profitability does not equate with prosperity, and we have no evidence that economic success has enabled our society to address persistent poverty. At a time when many economic indicators would point to greater corporate profitability, wages have not grown significantly and opportunities to improve the living conditions of average families are limited.
I raise this issue not to suggest one approach to solving this problem over another, but to call attention to the reality of the impact of persistent poverty and to raise awareness of this critical issue that should be more than just a catchy sound bite for our presidential candidates. The candidates’ policies regarding funding for education, especially early education, health care access, mental health services, child welfare, foster care, affordable housing, and employment development all deserve scrutiny to determine how each candidate plans to break the insidious hold poverty has on more than 9 percent of children living in this country.
The primary season has proven to be one of the greatest sources of public entertainment and amusement so far. The challenge is that while we are distracted by the sideshows, the substantive issues that will impact the well-being of the most vulnerable go unaddressed. Regardless of anyone’s political orientation, now is a time for all of us to insist that those who aspire to the nation’s highest office take seriously issues that have the potential to undermine all we hold dear in our democracy.