January is Poverty Awareness Month. To help raise awareness among Catholics of poverty and its underlying issues, USCCB has updated its website, www.PovertyUSA.org, and launched a Spanish counterpart, www.PobrezaUSA.org. Our blog is also running a series of posts by guest bloggers reflecting on poverty in our country and the world today. Today’s post is by Thomas Patrick Melady.
Some months ago I worked with a committee on the U.S. economic situation. I knew that our country was coming out of an economic recession. Unemployment rates were between eight and nine percent, perhaps even higher. These rates were high for the United States. Examining data on the subject, I saw how poverty especially affected U.S. children. I was shocked by what I learned.
I also felt ashamed because though an active participant in organizations concerned about the welfare of people, I never realized the seriousness of the poverty situation. I suspect many fellow Americans are in the same situation — ignorant of the condition affecting many of our young children. This is a national shame, and it looks like we don’t care.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports on U.S. poverty rates as they relate to children and their family status. They report on individuals under 18 who are in a household by birth, marriage or adoption but are not themselves a householder. The poverty rate within this group of individuals is 21.4 percent. That’s 15.4 million children. It grows further distressing when one considers that children under six have a poverty rate of 24.5 percent. That’s 5.8 million children. Simply put, one in four young children in the U.S. are being born and raised in poverty.
The type of household in which a child is raised is a factor. Around 47 percent who lived only with a female householder were in poverty, compared to only 10 percent of related children in married couple families. Furthermore, more than half of related children under six in families with a female householder were in poverty. This statistic is four and a half times the percentage of children under the age of six in poverty within married coupled families.
The story worsens when you consider race. African American children are among the largest race group facing child poverty; their rate is 38.2 percent, twice as high as the rate for white children.
What to do?
The first step is to communicate this shameful situation to all Americans. Americans are known worldwide as a caring people who contribute to charities that benefit the sick and the poor. Yet as the facts illustrate, they do not seem to respond to the startling information about the number of children suffering from poverty at home.
The first challenge: Awaken them with these facts. It will not be difficult in the U.S., which boast the world’s largest and most modern communications system. Churches, synagogues and other houses of worship could embrace such a challenge. What an impact all believers could have were they to unite and speak with one voice to eradicate in our lifetime poverty among children in the United States.
After sounding the alarm and working through political parties, believers could advocate programs that contribute to the ending of poverty among people under 18. Given the successful farming conditions in the U.S., one specific program could be to assure that all children start school each morning with a nourishing breakfast. Other programs could be designed for periods when children are not in school. There calls for one simple focus: To guarantee that all children in the United States receive a nourishing diet.
Since the civil rights of the 50s and 60s America has needed a cause that all —regardless of background, religious identification or race — could get behind with enthusiasm. What could be a more just moral cause that to end poverty among American children. It could become a proud and beautiful moment in our history and a rewarding experience for all participants.
Dr. Thomas Melady is a former U.S. Ambassador to Burundi, Uganda and the Vatican. He is also President Emeritus of Sacred Heart University