Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Costs of living

Much political rhetoric on poverty invokes the "vulnerability" of the poor. It's an appropriate term, I think. It does not hold that the poor are helpless or that they are necessarily victims. Neither does it deem poverty a source of shame. What it does emphasize is the capacity of the poor to become victims. The support structures that middle-class Americans enjoy and take for granted cannot be depended upon by those who live on so little. Simple things like health care or a well-funded school that can be so crucial in preventing something like childhood asthma or being held back a year in school from developing into a life-long impediment to success. And I think that, as those examples illustrate, no one is truly more vulnerable than children living in poverty.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation - which takes it's mission to be "helping vulnerable kids & families to succeed" has released it's KIDS COUNT report on children living in poverty. The extensive research reveals a lot of heartbreaking information about the inequalities that are weighing down so many lives.

Local newspapers from Indiana to Michigan are already running stories on the plight of poor children in their states. Perhaps this information will act as a corrective to the apathy with which poverty is treated in so many states. My home state of Texas ranks worst in the nation for children living without health insurance - 1 in 5 children under the age of 18 are not covered for health insurance at any point during the year. What makes that figure all the more troubling is that I know how stricken by inequality Texas is. We have wealthy metropolitan suburbs, communities soaked in oil money. And we have cities, especially along the border where stable jobs and decent pay are too hard to come by. Where people still can't expect to take home more than six dollars for an hour's labor. We have rural areas, where agriculture has been sidetracked to agribusiness and tiny underfunded schools have to service two or three counties worth of impoverished kids. These are the places I lived in and traveled through before leaving to college. And I know that in these places it would be met as a welcome improvement if 1 in 5 kids could be insured.

Growing up my sister had a lot of trouble with allergies. She was sick a lot. In the worst patch, which lasted about two years, she missed so many days that we had to petition the school to let her pass. But she got a lot better after that because we did have a good insurance plan from my Dad's government job, and we could take her to a specialist. She also had a speech impediment but there was a teacher at the magnet school who counseled here through that. She's fine now. You would never know she had those problems. For a family without the support that we had, her health problem could have become more serious. She could have been held back and given up on by the education system. She could have had to deal with the consequences of her speech problem for her whole life - stigmatized in classrooms and in interviews for jobs, But we had the material support we needed and now she is going to graduate in the top of her class and go to college next year.

I haven't been back to Texas in awhile. I now reside in Minnesota most of the year. Coincidentally, Minnesota consistently ranks lowest on all the indicators of child poverty. By and large our children are insured, our families make enough money to get by. I've come to like a lot about Minnesota. I even think about living there after I finish school. The people are more tolerant than in Texas, and yes, more liberal. Minneapolis-St. Paul have everything I would want from a city. And even the winters aren't so bad when you've got the right people to share them with.

But as I start to seriously think about what I am going to do with my life, part of me feels that I need to return to Texas. To organize those communities that are so neglected, and so vulnerable, and fight for justice. For a more egalitarian Texas. It wouldn't be easy - not in terms of politics, and not in terms of lifestyle. But how can I turn my back on my home? What am I doing organizing for homeless people and immigrants in Northfield when there are even more poor immigrants and people without homes back in my hometown who don't have a couple thousand idealistic college students willing to go to bat for them? The Texas Republicans won't help them. The Texas Democrats won't fight for them. And our President thinks programs like S-CHIP are irresponsible - as though there could be anything more irresponsible than allowing children to grow up without food and medicine and a decent place to learn. It might take a whole life to just lay the groundwork for a progressive movement in Texas. But if no one is willing to do that work, then there really is no hope. I got out of Texas because I was one of the lucky ones who was never made vulnerable by inequality. That's why, when I'm done with school, I'm going to be able to live wherever I want. Do something I love. That's why I'm even in school right now. And so maybe the only right thing to do is to go back.

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