Help children escape life of extreme poverty

According to a new national report, we now live in a country where one out of every 30 children is homeless. That’s up from one in 50 in 2006. Half of these children are under six.

To be clear, not all of these children are unsheltered; many live in families doubled up in crowded apartments, in transitional housing, or in places like Pear Blossom Place or Out of the Woods, two local shelters that house homeless parents with children.

Shelters and other housing providers do heroic work to help destitute families get back on their feet. But helping them stay on their feet, find stable housing – and most important, living wage jobs – is no easy task in today’s economy.

Growth in the number of homeless children is the most wrenching symptom of what economists and politicians euphemistically call “rising income inequality.” Most discussions of this topic focus on the troubles of the middle class, because polls show that’s the concern that touches the most voters.

But the grinding despair of extreme poverty and its devastating effects on children ought to be at the center of the conversation about who we are and what kind of future we are creating for the next generation.

Children who experience homelessness are far more likely to be homeless as adults than those who haven’t. Once families fall into the dark pit of extreme poverty, the chance that their children will climb out of it is slim. The more likely trajectory for children in extremely poor families is emotional trauma, instability, school failure, and, by adulthood, depression, and/or other mental illness, extreme vulnerability to drug or alcohol addiction, difficulty finding and keeping adequate employment, and legal troubles of one kind or another. Many (though not all) of the parents of today’s homeless children have traveled this very path.

The danger of our country’s economic polarization is that more families are falling into this dark place, and their children may also be consigned to the downward spiral of intergenerational poverty.

There are effective ways to help people climb out of the perpetual crisis of extreme poverty. Yet some of the very lifelines people need – like subsidized child care and housing – have been cut during the past few years. And others – like a significant increase in the minimum wage – are long overdue.

What’s really lacking is a sense of urgency about solving the problem of extreme poverty and homelessness, in spite of ample evidence that depriving children of stability, safety, and the expectation of success has enormous long term costs. Those costs include more health and mental health care, more courts and jails, and more costs for treating substance abuse and addiction. They also include the loss of everything that stable, successful, well-educated children represent for our future.

But most important, the growth in the number of homeless kids is a red flag – a warning about the erosion of our national identity as a land of opportunity and equality. It’s up to all of us to change what the polls are telling our elected leaders, and to insist that solving the problem of extreme poverty is imperative and urgent.