For decades, America has sold the working poor and poor children the same mantra: if you work hard enough, get an education, and stay out of trouble, you will be able to achieve the same luxuries of your well-off counterparts. However, the truth is, that trajectory only happens for very few. In America, if you are born into poverty, you are likely to die in poverty. And that which is owed to every child — safe shelter, nutritious food, free quality education, and healthcare — is consistently underfunded, bargained away, or made the task of the child’s family to obtain through hard work. As America continues to reckon with itself and awaken to overt and subtle violence against Black people, I ask, “Will America see, hear, and protect its children from the impact of structural racism in poverty?”
Poverty and racism
About 12 million children in the United States — 16 percent of all children — live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold — annual income below $25,465 for a family of four (less than $2,122 a month). Children of color are disproportionally impacted with 30 percent of Black children, 23.7 percent of Latino children, and 29 percent of indigenous children living in poverty. It is beyond shameful that the richest country in the world invests the least in the very people upon whom its future depends.
My childhood was like that of so many Black children in America. I had hardworking parents who struggled to make ends meet in the rural South where living wage jobs were hard to find and often out of the reach for people of color due to insidious racism and economic depression. And while feeding and clothing me and my siblings were my parents’ highest priorities, there was also actual racism to confront. It was structural racism that kept Blacks on the side of town with inadequate schools; it was structural racism that kept Black parents from getting employment with higher wages and benefits; and, structural racism caused the arrest of Blacks more for petty infractions. Unfortunately, not much has changed during my lifetime. That structural racism still exists and affects not only Blacks but other people of color. It is why Black children, like Tamir Rice, and Black adults, like George Floyd, continue to get killed by police; it is why immigrant children have been torn from their mothers’ arms and locked in cages; and, it is why millions of children sleep on the street and go hungry every night.
We need change
Children’s Defense Fund – California and others have fought for policies that address the needs of children and families. However, more than 50 years after Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” the economic wealth gap for Blacks is as wide now as it was in 1950. Now, we’re still fighting for sound policies to tackle poverty head-on. Eradicating the stain of poverty from every corner of our country — from city blocks to the deep South — requires nothing less than a radical transformation of the American psyche. Poverty, like race, is a social construct; we cannot undo this until every person assumes the responsibility of alleviating this social harm and moral stain on our society.
But this transformation will also require collective resolve and action. Thus, we must focus on the root causes of intergenerational poverty beyond just strengthening the social safety net. We need to implement innovative approaches, such as baby bonds, a child allowance, and a guaranteed basic income. And, yes, we need reparations for Black children now and for the generations to come.