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Children in Poverty
America's Ongoing War

The Overall Picture
       In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on American soil: the War on Domestic Poverty. Since then, hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed from the U.S. government to large and small  towns across America. Our government has provided free food, repaired dilapidated homes and furnished jobs to those in need.

       Government agencies have indeed provided millions of Americans with much needed aid. Nevertheless, our country has not won the War on Poverty. In 1996, millions more Americans lived in poverty than in 1964. A 1996 Fordham University report says that the country's social well-being has reached its lowest point in a quarter century, with children and young people suffering the most.

An Individual Example
        When Fay Coffman hit rock bottom in 1995, she relied on only $700 a month in government aid to support herself, her mother, and her three children. Coffman said, "I was on welfare, food stamps, lived in the projects, no car, no way to make ends meet. It was hard, and it was very, very depressing."

       Today, thanks to her work at a self-help agency, Coffman and her family are doing well in their Missouri hometown. Coffman has her own home, a car and no longer worries about having enough food for her family.

Poverty's Effect on Children
       Unfortunately, not all of America's poor have been so fortunate. According to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau in September 1996, 13.8% of Americans live in poverty. Many more are on the borderline. Poverty affects all ages, but an astonishing 48% percent of its victims are children:

  • About 15 million children -- one out of every four -- live below the official poverty line.

  • 22% of Americans under the age of 18 -- and 25% under age 12 -- are hungry or at the risk of being hungry.

  • Everyday 2,660 children are born into poverty; 27 die because of it.

  • Children and families are the fastest growing group in the homeless population, representing 40%.

Poverty in New York City

       Domestic poverty knows no geographical barriers, but it is especially widespread here in New York City. The latest study, released in 1995 by the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, reveals that New York children fare worse in virtually every category than their counterparts at the state and national level. This includes low birth weight, infant mortality, violence-related deaths, abuse and neglect, education, and job preparedness.

       Life for New York City children is getting worse: 

  • 25% of New Yorkers are children.

  • 762,000 children live in poverty.

  • 181 babies are born into poverty each day.

  • 10,000 children are homeless. This number has doubled since 1988.

       In addition to these sad statistics, many New York City children read and do math below grade level. An estimated 38.9% of the city's school children will graduate high school, compared to 68.8% of all American students.


How the USA Stacks Up
       Among the 21 most affluent nations, the United States has the highest percentage of poor children. In fact, our rate is twice that of the country next in line.

       Furthermore, the September 1996 welfare reform bill cut $60 billion in aid to poor families within a period of six years. It is estimated that this will throw one million more children into poverty. Sadly, even though we are the richest industrialized nation, we are the stingiest with aid to our own children.

Prospects for Their Future
       Too many young Americans go to bed with empty stomachs. They also wake up to seemingly hopeless futures: school problems, unemployment, welfare, gangs, drugs and crime. Children of poverty are more likely to suffer young and violent deaths.

       Mentally and physically malnourished for the first five years of their lives, they are unable to keep up in class. One national study projects that almost a million children who will have started school in September 1996, will encounter serious problems. Many will drop out or finish high school functionally illiterate.

Hopeful Signs
       Fortunately, some Americans care. Three out of every four voters agree that our political leaders are not doing enough to help solve the problems facing our children. Despite strong concern over our national debt, two-thirds of the American electorate believes that government programs for children should be the last to be cut. This willingness to help children extends to voters of all ages, races, and political and economic backgrounds.

        There are other hopeful signs. Independent Sector, a national forum to encourage volunteerism, reported in 1996 that giving and volunteering in America is slowly rising. In 1995, 49% of American adults regularly did some form of volunteer work -- a total of 20.3 billion hours. Financial contributions also increased more than 10% between 1993 and 1995.

        Independent Sector has uncovered key factors that motivate people to contribute and volunteer. Simply being asked emerged as the number one incentive. The survey found that when asked to give, 85% of respondents oblige. Clearly, we Americans are willing to make a difference.

Taking a Stand

        On June 1, 1996, 250,000 people from all 50 states participated in the Stand for Children. In this non-partisan event, Americans of every race, age, and income group joined in songs, prayers, and commitments to help America's troubled youth.

       Even the youngest participants understood the significance of the event. Seven-year-old Tracy said:

       "Today was a good day because we could eat and drink and have a lot of fun. All of this happened so mommies and daddies will be able to take care of their children, like my Mommy takes care of me."

       At the Stand for Children, people renewed their sense of responsibility for our nation's children. Rose Avello, associate director of the Citizens Committee for Children of New York, sums up the view of many child advocacy groups:

"The major success story is that more and more citizens care about children, not just their own. People are realizing that children are our future and that citizens have a responsibility to ensure that all children receive quality care."

       As evidence, Avello cites the recent growth of her organization's postcard campaign. Originally starting with only 100 volunteers, this annual drive for funds and awareness now includes some 10,000 New Yorkers. Even young children send in their allowance to help.

Photo of girls learning to ice skateWith a little help, every child can start to soar

In Conclusion
       Even a small amount of your time can make a big difference for a child. And society benefits, too. Crime rates decline, youngsters become better educated and then see their futures with more optimistic eyes. Says Eddie Ryeom, a volunteer with Operation Exodus:

"One of the major benefits of working with children is seeing tangible results, from their smiling faces to increased test scores. However small your contribution, you're helping a community deeply in need."

       This testimonial and millions like it show that even one volunteer -- perhaps you -- can change a child's life now and for the future. With up to 15 million kids in need, every volunteer is an asset in our ongoing war on child poverty. From helping an individual child to addressing the issue nationwide, there are many choices (some are below) on how to help -- and find greater fulfillment for yourself, too.

       There are many ways you can get involved - from national programs to one-on-one mentoring. See our Children in Poverty Links.

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This web page and entire website Copyright: 1997 - 2015 by Hearts and Minds Network, Inc. Photo 2006 by Kimble L. Warren & photo of boy courtesy of Flickr user Carf & licensed under Creative Commons at http://www.heartsandminds.org/articles/childpov.htm - online 1997, latest changes March 31, 2007

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