By ordinary measures, the simple sandwiches, washed down with cold water, that were quickly consumed by the hungry medical team, were just that: a simple meal. To the children, crowding hopefully around the open windows of the make do clinic, the food was a feast. This fact was made even more obvious by the appearance of those same children who later waited patiently in line for a dose of worm medicine. Their swollen bellies and the copper red streaks running through their hair gave strong proof to the malnutrition and protein deficiency that sapped their energy, dulled their minds and shortened their lives.
Malnutrition and hunger are all too prevalent throughout the world, signatures of the poverty of body and hope that sits at the very doorstep of the rich and powerful. In America, few children line up in outdoor clinics for worm medicine and not too many are seen with swollen bellies and other than normal red hair. But to deny the existence of poverty in this “land of opportunity” and its morbid effects is to ignore 1 out of every 4 children who are every bit as hungry as their counterparts in so called “third world countries.”
That hunger takes many shapes and produces far too many consequences.
Most everyone comes into the world with great potential. Given even modest means of support, love, nurture, stimulation and the proper foods to eat, most children, like flowers stretching toward sunlight, grow into decent and productive adults. Poverty, with its many faces like giant clouds that continually darken their world, denies that support and turns the future into a desperate struggle to survive.
Children living in poverty do not learn in school as well as their peers and are among the first to leave places of education that offer possibilities for productive living. Poverty saps energy as much in America as in the places where even a simple sandwich is missing. Fear, anger, desperation and depression are constant companions of children victimized by the circumstances of life that are no fault of their own. Recent research has shown again that the youth in this country are dissuaded of hope for their role in life when poverty is the only path they know to follow.
The number of children in homeless shelters and those who sleep in broken down cars is increasing and the illness, sporadic school attendance, absent role models and exposure to crime are further contributors to the ever mounting toll that poverty extracts from its victims. And, in a perverse kind of irony, the lack of sufficient economic attention to the root causes of poverty and its prevention actually adds to the cost of dealing with violent crime, abuse, drugs and disease. The old adage “pay now or pay later” seems a very appropriate statement in a time when those living in poverty is increasing and the resources to help shrinking.
But who pays? Are there enough soup kitchens, homeless shelters, social service agencies, church groups, non-profit and philanthropic foundations to engage in what President Lyndon Johnson called the “war on poverty?” Or, in the immortal words of the venerable Ebenezer Scrooge “Are there no prisons?!”
Even if all these groups, working together, addressed the 1 in 4 of our children (and therefore their families) who live in poverty, they would only deal, for the most part, with the consequences, not the causes nor the prevention of this terrible and pervasive blot on the landscape of humanity.
So what to do? Give up? The poor are with us always, right? Most of them are not motivated to get ahead and out of poverty, right? We should not spend valuable resources helping those who won’t help themselves, right?
Unfortunately, in America today, the divide that separates the poor from the more affluent and the ideological perspectives that drive that divide are growing into a crescendo that is a subtle part of the political agenda and a disheartening view of our so called “American Dream.”
Perhaps it is time to re-frame the war on poverty and decide on some realistic solutions. First, there is the moral imperative that has survived through thousands of years, wars, governments, social revolutions, bitter rivalries and spiritual encounters that clings to the idea that humans have value and that they should be preserved. Associated with this as a second idea is that the forces that govern should accept that imperative as a fundamental to their own survival. In other words the human race strives to go on and the governments of the world have a responsibility to see that it happens. And that is the fundamental argument that is now unfolding as America heads toward another election. Should government play a major role in meeting the fundamental needs of people in their desire for food, housing, clean water, education, health care, places to work and play, and the secured freedom to express opinions, values and beliefs? Or do we simply leave it all to the benevolence and good will of a few and hope for the best?
The answer may well decide the fate of 1 in 4 of all our children
and leave to chance the possibility of more swollen bellies and red streaked hair.