By Clarence Hightower, Ph.D.
The Anti-Poverty Soldier
“Children are one third of our population and all of our future.”
– United States Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health
“Safety and security don’t just happen; they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.”
– Nelson Mandela
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Feb. 22, 2017) — A little more than 300 miles downriver from Minneapolis-St. Paul and approximately 150 miles west of Chicago are the Quad Cities. The Quad Cities metropolitan area, which is anchored by the principal cities of Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa to the west, and Rock Island and Moline, Illinois to the east, makes up the largest population center along the Mississippi River between the Twin Cities and St. Louis, Missouri.
As did the majority of industrial centers in America’s so-called rust belt, the Quad Cities suffered a significant decrease in its manufacturing base during the last half of the twentieth century, losing more than 40% of its jobs. And during the last two decades of the century the area’s median household income fell well below
the national average and continued its downward trend into the early 2000s.
Then, a concentrated effort by local government agencies, business community, nonprofit sector, and other key stakeholders helped to revitalize the metropolitan area after decades of decline. A boom in high-tech jobs and the continued presence of major industrial employers such as John Deere, Alcoa, Kraft, and HNI helped to foster a turnaround, even attracting national media attention to the region of nearly 400,000 people.
Yet in spite of the economic upturn that began to characterize the earliest years of the twenty-first century, the Great Recession, as it would across the United States, hit many Quad Cities families hard. In the fall of 2012, the PBS television show Frontline first aired its documentary Poor Kids. The film chronicles the daily lives of three young girls living in the Quad Cities after their families had recently fallen into poverty. In its review of the film, the Library Journal Review writes:
Brittany, Kaylie, and Jasmine live in America’s Heartland and are in some ways like many youngsters, yet they have become accustomed to doing without things like food, new shoes, or hot water for their shower. Their parents struggle to save their homes, to find a job, and to purchase groceries-to give their children something. These young people come to accept this with heartbreaking grace and to assess their future with incredible maturity. Their situation is a national tragedy.
All three families ultimately lost their homes, an unequivocally traumatic experience for parent and child alike. As a result one family was forced to move multiple times, while another settled in a trailer and the third family sought transitional housing. Not long after Poor Kids was broadcast, Frontline published an online story the rampant increase in child homelessness between 2009 and 2012. Citing a U.S. Department of Education study, Frontline notes that during this period 41 states witnessed a rise in the number of homeless children.
In a number of states, including Vermont, Maine, Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota, the increase was more than 30 percent. Some might suggest that these are not states that one would generally associate with poverty or homelessness. Which demonstrates why, in the twenty-first century when income and wealth disparities are unrestrained, poverty and its associated ills know no bounds.
The most recent American Community Survey brought some good news as in 2015, poverty in America dipped while median income rose. Still, there are more than 43 million Americans living in poverty, more than 15 million of whom are children. Furthermore, an estimated 16 million children are living just above the federal poverty guideline and are thus officially classified as low-income.
The Quad Cities represent just one example of a once thriving area that suffered a precipitous decline, only to rebound and then experience an economic downturn once again. In today’s world, poverty has the potential to hit just about anywhere, anytime. And those who suffer the most are our children.
Consider these words filled with tremendous fear, and yet still tempered with hope, spoken by Kaylie in Poor Kids:
If I keep missing school, then I see my future poor, on the streets, in a box…and asking for money everywhere, from everybody, and then stealing stuff from stores… I don’t want to steal stuff. I don’t want to do any of that stuff. I want to get an education and a good job. I believe that I’m going to get a perfect job that I like and that I want to do. People can’t stop you from believing in your own dreams.
The struggle against poverty is indeed, an enormous challenge. Nonetheless, we owe it to our children to continue that struggle; to make it a little easier for them to both conceive and reach their dreams.
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, 55104