A reflection on child poverty I recently had a flashback while grocery shopping. As I reached for a roll of paper towels, I thought to myself, “We never had paper towels. Now I act as if I can’t live without them!” Then I reached for the toilet paper and remembered that when we ran out of toilet paper, we often had to use brown paper bags (I HATE them to this day) or the Yellow Pages (now, doesn’t that give new meaning to the phrase, “Let your fingers do the walking?”). This is the game I play, month to month. – Imani YaaAnsantewaa Sankofa For me, both the effects and affects of poverty are seen and felt on a daily basis. Its unrelenting grip can squeeze the joy out of something as simple as a trip to the movies. About a week ago, as we were driving home from the movies, my children were thanking me for treating them. My younger son interjected, “How come we never get popcorn and stuff?” “Because we’re poor and can’t afford it,” I blurted out. He was amazed. “We’re poor?” “When we lived in the house, were we poor?” “Yes, but not as poor. It’s more difficult now that I’m a single parent.” It wasn’t the first time I’d told my children “We don’t have any money,” but it was the first time my younger son understood it. It bothers me that I have to scrape together nickels and dimes to do something as basic as treat my children to a movie at the $1.50 theater. Or, at times, having to choose between a box of tampons or $2 worth of gas. My children have never been to King’s Island, Six Flags, Kentucky Kingdom or any other amusement park. Even my own family has taken to excluding us from the list of potential participants in family events or get-aways because they know I don’t have the money. It’s almost unbearable to see the identical looks of disappointment cast over the faces of my children when they discover they’re going to miss another opportunity to go on a trip. For us, there are no weekend adventures or annual summer excursions. With every Disney commercial comes the dreaded question from my precocious 5-year-old, Tierra. “Ooh, Mommy, can we go to Disney World?” “Maybe one day,” I say. Her response, “You always say that.” I know … I do … Don’t I? In some ways, my children’s lives are better than mine. I remember one winter where I didn’t have a coat and I had holes in my shoes. My feet would be freezing cold by the time I got to school. My teacher would send me to the principal’s office, where I would take off my shoes and socks and put them on the radiator until they dried. My children have never gone to bed plagued with excruciating pains of hunger. My children have shoes. Unlike my mother and me, they’ve never gone without the very basic necessities. They’ve never been exposed to sexual, mental or physical abuse at the hands of a family member. Unlike me, they haven’t had to survive in a home frequently overwrought with prostitutes and heroin addicts. Unlike my mother and me, my children have never had to exist in a roach-infested home. When my mother was a child, she once lived in a home so infested with roaches that at night, as my mother lay in her bed on bug watch, the roaches would amass together, covering the wall in a grotesque mosaic of blackness until no part of it was visible. When I look at things from this perspective, my children have it much better than I did and, undoubtedly, a far cry better than my mother. Still, it’s very hurtful when I can’t take my children somewhere because the car isn’t running or I don’t have gas money or because it’s too expensive. When my sons want to join a sports program, I have to say no. I just can’t afford it. As a result, my children are socially stigmatized. They feel like outsiders. By age 10 and 11, boys are supposed to know “how to ball”: hold and swing a bat, pitch a baseball and kick or throw a football. My sons don’t. They’ve never had a male role model to take time and show them. A short time ago, my oldest son Xavier told me he needed a prescription for Zoloft. Stunned by his statement, I asked him why. He confided that he had just seen a commercial for Zoloft, and it talked about feeling sad, hopeless, irritable, moody and a bunch of other stuff that meant you were probably depressed. I asked him if that’s how he felt (depressed) and he answered, “Yes, Mom, I feel like things are never going to change.” Sadly enough, there are days I feel the exact same way. One of my biggest fears is that even once I’ve obtained my degree, I’m still doomed to fail. After all, my mother was college educated and held several well-paying jobs, but look at how things turned out for her and her children. Ironically, the Meridian Street building I went to in order to apply for assistance is right across the street from the window I used to gaze out of as a child as I dreamed of a way out. Just as in cases of abuse and neglect, poverty is a recurring and insidious plague on society, receiving minute, if any, attention. So far the government’s response to poverty has been like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. As someone who has endured the shame and stigma attached to having grown up on public assistance (welfare and food stamps), I can tell you it sucks. I hated for my friends to see us shopping, even though most of them were in a similar situation. Most people make the assumption that if you receive public assistance you must just be lazy, trifling and uneducated. For some on public aid, this may be true; however, for most of the people I knew then and those I know now, it’s simply a case of Murphy’s Law. I can remember my mother crying herself to sleep many nights because she could not pay the rent, utilities, buy groceries and had sent her children to bed hungry. For her, poverty came from her love addiction to an abusive drug addict. In my own situation as a single parent, the biggest issue has been both child and health care. What’s really upsetting to me, in light of the recent war with Iraq, is Bush’s proposal to give free health care and free education to Iraqi citizens, yet these are luxuries that the poor and disenfranchised in our own country won’t ever enjoy. Perhaps those of us Americans who make up the thousands of uninsured in this country should become Iraqi citizens under the newly founded democracy of the Bush Administration therein. How unconscionable it seems to me that our government would even entertain such an insult against the American people that we should feel as if we had just been told to bend over, grab our ankles and grit our teeth. Aren’t the lives of our children and people just as valuable as those of Iraqi citizens? For me, the most immediate health care needs are for my children. My oldest son desperately needs braces. It would seem that his status as the son of an active duty U.S. service member would afford him some measure of value as the child of one willing to die for his country. He isn’t even worth a set of braces. Braces are not covered under Tricare, Champus or any other military insurance. To some this may seem a trivial matter, one of vanity. I assure you it is a serious health issue; it is a nutrition and digestion issue. Digestion, that is the breaking down of foods, begins in the mouth. The proper alignment of your teeth is essential to the proper mastication of food. My other two children are both asthmatics. My son’s asthma can sometimes lead to a stay in the hospital. My baby girl also suffers from auto-immune disease, in addition to asthma. These types of disabilities often require back-up child care. My children need someone who can administer care and stay with them through a crisis and/or trip to the hospital. This usually means lost time from work and, in my current situation, school. I have had lucrative job opportunities literally slip through my fingers because I could not afford child care. What more employers need to understand is my first job is as a mother. Being a single parent with little or no family support is tough. The Family Care and Medical Leave Act does not protect your job if you are still in your probationary period. Because of federal guidelines, I don’t qualify for child or health care assistance, only food stamps, because I receive support for my children voluntarily from their father. The system seems to reward those who have children and neglect their financial responsibilities, as opposed to those who do the right thing without the involvement of the judicial system. I was told that the $725 a month (voluntary child support) on which I support three children and myself was too much money for me to qualify for child care assistance. I was dumbfounded. What in the heck did they mean, too much? When the government defines child poverty, it uses a formula dating from 1955 that does not take into account the change in spending, cost of living or changes in family structure. Nor does it seem to acknowledge the staggering increase of single-parent homes (the vast majority headed by women), or the subsequent rise in the need for child care and the related cost. According to government regulations, to be considered impoverished, an average family of three could not earn more than $10,999. Ida C. Merriam, author of The Meaning of Poverty Effectiveness, argues that the government has turned a deaf ear and a blind eye to the intent of federal poverty guidelines. Originally, the poverty line was to be revised every so often to give some measure of latitude for changes in the standard of living and overall spending patterns. At the beginning of each month I deduct $414 for rent, $35 to $45 for electricity in the winter months (I don’t know what the cost will be when I run the air during the summer), $50 for the phone and roughly the same for miscellaneous household and personal effects. You do the math. Yep, that’s correct. That leaves me just about $165 a month. Perhaps this may seem like a fortune, but remember I’m a full-time student. I need gas to get to school and back. I buy the least expensive gas, regular 87, which has been fluctuating between $1.48 and $1.78 a gallon. I usually go to Kroger for gas so that I can save 3 cents per gallon (ultimately, every penny counts). It takes about $22 to fill up the tank of the ’93 Chevy Lumina I am using (no, I don’t even own the car I drive). If I am careful to plan my every stop, keep the tires properly inflated, add the fuel additive and keep the oil changed, this fill-up will usually last two days, maybe three (if I’m lucky). Remember, I only have about $165 after expenses to last for a month. That $22 I just filled up with now leaves me with $143. If I maintain this same judicious pattern of filling up, I can repeat that exact process another six times, then I’ll have to settle for a mere $11 worth of gas! Whew! Now that I’ve spent that last $11, I still have another 13 to 19 days to go until my $725 direct deposit for child support replenishes my now exhausted checking account. Over the next 13 to 19 days, I think, “What shall I do for gas or any other necessity which requires cold hard cash?” First, I cry, and then I pray. This is what I will do every day until Uncle Sam (my direct deposit) comes to play, the battered game … of life. This is the game I play, month to month. At least until I complete school, secure gainful employment and conquer the child care demon. I’ve often been told that money can’t buy happiness, but it sure gets you a hell of a lot closer. Imani YaaAnsantewaa Sankofa is a Martin University student majoring in criminal justice.