That’s how many of Arizona’s children live in poverty. 400,000 children who are likely food insecure, with a dim outlook for the future. Let’s face it. The American Dream is no longer the promise it once was. Yes, those who work very hard can still make something of themselves in our country, but it is no longer a given that a child, even one who really applies themselves, will be better off than his or her parents.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation publishes an annual Kids Count Databook that rates states in on how children fare in each of the 50 states. In the 2016 report, Arizona ranked:
- 45th in overall child well-being
- 39th in economic well-being
- 44th in education
- 45th in health
- 46th in family and community
Not statistics to be proud of by any imagination. Not surprising either, since with one in five (1.26 million) living below the poverty line, Arizona is second to last in the nation, in front of only Mississippi.
Despite what the privatization pushers would have you believe, the number one problem facing our community district schools is poverty. As for those who would say, “they ought to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps” not only do you need boots to have bootstraps but how is pulling yourself up by your bootstraps technically even possible? And for those who say it is a parental responsibility to care for their children, I say absolutely! But, over one-third of the households in Arizona are single parent. Want to bet the vast majority of these households live in poverty?
I’m not saying that poor families can’t be good families. Far from it. What I am saying is that being poor makes everything else tougher to deal with. Those of us who are fortunate to live well above the poverty line can’t imagine the day-to-day challenges of being poor. Once, while running for political office, my wife took the SNAP Challenge. This required her to live for a week on a food budget of a little over $4 per day. (SNAP, an acronym for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is also known as “food stamps.”) The challenge was, well, challenging, and that’s just one very small glimpse of what it means to be poor. For children, it can mean that the only meal they get each day is the one they get at school. That makes learning more difficult and illness more likely.
For the rest of us, it means missed opportunities and wasted resources. This, because we will never know from where the next President, successful businessperson, literary genius, or incredible athlete will come. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson all came from poor roots. Lebrun James and soccer star Pele grew up in poor families. Oprah, who grew up in extreme poverty, is the daughter of an unmarried teen. John Paul DeJoria (Paul Mitchell hair products and Patron tequila) lived in a foster home and spent time in an L.A. street gang. Andrew Carnegie, considered one of the largest benefactors of libraries and educational institutions across the country, worked in factories as a child and forced himself to sleep at night so he would forget his constant hunger. Yes, these people were probably special to start with, but they didn’t make it big all on their own. Which poor kids have we already written off that could have had similar stories if only we’d provided them the right support? And for those who might not be moved by thoughts of disadvantaged poor children or the missed opportunities surrounding them, I offer the sheer economics of this crisis.
“In the mid-1990s”, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris said in her recent TED talk, “a decade-long study of 17,500 adults (70 percent Caucasian and college educated) conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC, found childhood trauma dramatically increased the risk for 7 out of 10 of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Depending on the amount of trauma experienced, those exposed had triple the risk of heart disease and lung cancer, 4-1/2 times the risk of depression, 12 times the risk of suicide ideality and a 20-year decrease in life expectancy. Almost 13 percent of the population has had significant exposure, yet 20-plus years later, doctors are still not trained in routine screening or treatment.
Children in foster care have generally had to deal with more than their share of trauma such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse; neglect; living with parents with drug and/or alcohol addiction; and much more. In Arizona, the state is seeing an alarmingly large increase in the number of children living in foster care due to abuse or neglect. “The rate grew by 87% between 2009 and 2015 and the number of children in foster care more than doubled in seven counties.” As of March of this year, there were 18,906 kids in out-of-home care, seven percent more than the 17,592 children from a year ago. By 2016, the number was more than 19,000. This, after Governor Ducey fired the head of the Department of Child Safety for systemic problems with that agency’s ability to protect children. The problems obviously still exist.
Arizona’s Children’s Action Alliance says there is “growing and unmanageable stress on families, the destruction of the safety net to help families before they are in crisis, and the lack of effective child welfare policies and practices to keep children safely at home. Resulting consequences include huge costs to taxpayers, an overwhelmed and unsustainable child protective services system, a shortage of foster families with children sleeping in offices and living in shelters, and life-changing trauma for thousands of children. Arizonans will bear the effects for many years to come, as children who have experienced foster care are far more likely to fail in school, become homeless, and suffer with poor mental and physical health.”
Providing the right support to help children grow into productive citizens is money in the bank. Prenatal care is less expensive than preschool and preschool is less expensive than prison. Ensuring much better outcomes, while ultimately saving taxpayer dollars, should be something everyone can get behind.