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Sunday Reflections: Impoverished Youth: Over half of public school children now live in low income homes

As I pulled into the Target parking lot we saw him, a man old enough to be my grandfather holding a sign saying he had been laid off and was hungry. The girls and I exited our vehicle and made our way towards the entrance when I noticed The Tween was crying. “It’s so sad,” she said, “that poor man.” While I love her compassionate heart, I hate to see her hurting, especially when it turns out there is so little I can do to fix the ills of this world which seem so much bigger than me.

The truth is we were only at Target because we hadn’t gotten a gift card for Christmas and since things have been tight for us I knew we had to use it for groceries. And we did, we used it for groceries. It just turns out that we would be sharing those groceries on this day.

This was the second time in two months that my girls had seen the effects of poverty up close. Back in December we had stopped at a Denny’s with some family when an older man came walking in with a backpack on his back and a battered rolling suitcase in his hand. He ordered a glass of water and a single pancake. I watched as he lifted his trembling hand to try and align the fork with his mouth realizing that he was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, the same disease that took my grandfather’s life 6 years ago. My heart shattered into a million pieces as I realized that this man, he could have been my grandfather if his situation had been just a little bit different. The waitress seemed to know him and confirmed that he was homeless and came in frequently. We couldn’t do much but The Mr. had the waitress put a Denny’s gift card in his hand after we left that day and I gave her information to give him about local area resources. In both of these cases the person we saw was older, but children are not immune to poverty.

Just this last week a report was released that indicates that for the first time in over half a century more than half of U.S. school aged children in public schools are living in low-income or impoverished homes: “Overall, 51 percent of U.S. schoolchildren came from low-income households in 2013, according to the foundation, which analyzed data from National Center for Education Statistics on students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.” (Source: Huffington Post). This information adds a grim portrait to recent reports that indicate that in the year 2013 1 in 30 youth were homeless at some point.

The SEF said the rate of poor students in public schools hasn’t been higher in more than half a century, calling its findings “a defining moment in America’s public education.” Source: Buzzfeed

Every day I listen to NPR and the news reports assure me that the economy is getting better, jobs are being added – we’re on the upswing they say.  And yet they are also doing more and more stories about the plight of the youth in America today, the shrinking middle class, and the fact that food banks are running out of food because they can’t keep up with demand. The truth is the economy is getting better, for some people. Sadly, a lot of those people don’t seem to be our nation’s children. The effects of this are both immediate and long-term, and devastating.

Southern Education Foundation / Via southerneducation.org from Buzzfeed article :

http://www.buzzfeed.com/davidmack/public-school-poverty#.klJpojOkgp

I recently read an advanced copy of More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, which Amanda will be reviewing closer to its release date though I highly recommend it because it genuinely blew me away and moved me. I was struck by the main character, Aaron, who is struggling with a lot of issues, one of them being growing up in extreme poverty. Aaron’s situation struck me because it was the situation of the teenage boys who live next door to me. Like Aaron, these boys are forced to share a bed. In fact, they sleep on a full size mattress that rests on the floor, they don’t even have a frame. At various times their family has had to go to the local food bank to get food because they couldn’t make ends meet that month. There is a scene in More Happy Than Not where author Silvera shows Aaron going to a local comic book store where he doesn’t have enough money to make the purchase that he wants. It’s not a big purchase, but it still happens to be out of his reach. This scene resonated with me as The Tween and I stood at Target searching for the cheapest of everything we could find, making sure not to go over the gift card limit. It reminded me of the family next door and those teenage boys having to say no they couldn’t go out for tacos after the school play because they couldn’t scrape up enough change in the couch cushions. It reminded me of that man ordering one pancake and a glass of water.

These past few months I have seen an upswing in the amount of YA literature that is more realistically depicting the economic struggles of teens today. I’ve seen a few more More Happy Than Not‘s to contrast with the number of rich kids in boarding schools or teens with cars that never seem to break down because they are brand spanking new. Even in Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican, a book about a private Catholic school, it is made clear that many of the students there can barely afford to pay their tuition or are there because of some type of benefactor. Like Aaron in More Happy Than Not or Sean and Neecie in Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian, I’ve also seen more nods to working teens.

I think that the increasing number of children living in struggling economic homes is the greatest challenge our nation faces today. There are a lot of causes and a lot of things we need to do to address the problem, but first we have to acknowledge and understand the extent of the problem. Literature can help us do that, but a story is not enough. We need to use the power of story to open the eyes of those who don’t understand the depth of the problem, and then we must all challenge ourselves to do better in addressing the problem. As the economic report states, “Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.” Addressing the issue of poverty isn’t just about taking care of kids today, it’s about taking care of our collective future.

More Teens and Poverty in TLT:

See also Stacked: Socioeconomic Class in Contemporary YA Lit: Where Are The Poor Teens? Guest Post by Librarian Faythe Arrendondo and Kate Brauning: Writing Poverty in YA

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