Three TVs but No Food (Except for Lead Paint Chips)

The New York Times had a story last week, “3 TVs and No
Food: Growing Up Poor in America“, that looked at childhood poverty in America.

Two days later, the Philadelphia Inquirer had a story, “Philly’s shame: City ignores thousands of poisoned kids“, that looked at the thousands of kids that are poisoned by lead paint every year in Philadelphia.

The Times article tells the story of a 13-year old boy who has three televisions in his room, two of them gargantuan large-screen models. But there is no food in the house. “I just go hungry,” he states.

The Inquirer article tells the story of a 2 1/2 yer old boy whose blood level for lead was at 46, nine times higher than the level that triggers medical alarms.

The impact of a lack of access to food or to eating lead paint chips can be devastating to a youngster. It can lead to a life of stunted growth – physically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially. For example, lead poisoning can cause irreversible damage, including lower IQ along with lifelong learning and behavioral problems.

I don’t understand how this can happen in America, but obviously it does. Too many American kids are set up for failure when they are born into what might be called the “broken class,” where violence, mental illness, drugs and sexual abuse infuse childhood. The chart below, from the Times article, shows just how prevalent childhood poverty is in the U.S.


How can the richest country in the world have the second highest rate of children living in poor households, at an astonishingly high rate of 20%?

The Times article compared two 20-year old women, one of whom is a college student and knew that she won the lottery of birth and was headed for success the moment she was born to a doctor and a lawyer. The other 20 year old lost the lottery of birth. Her father was arrested for drug offenses before she was born. Her mother used methamphetamine when pregnant and then disappeared into prison when Bethany was 3. A friend of the family abused her sexually when she was small.

I’ve written a few times about this luck of birth issue, or what Warren Buffet calls the “Ovarian Lottery“, and what Chelsea Clinton refers to as being “Smiled on by Fate.”

It’s simply not right that the luck of birth should determine whether a two-year old is more likely to be eating lead paint chips or organic oatmeal and fruit.

Yet, as both articles point out, issues such as the ones noted in the stories are rarely talked about, and as result, little is done to fix the problem.

Beyond the immediate problems that these issues create, there is also a loss of hope associated with children living in such poverty. And that loss of hope may be the most devastating consequence of these problems.

The Times article notes that there are solutions that help; early childhood initiatives have a particularly good record, as do efforts to promote work, like the earned-income tax credit, financial literacy programs help families manage money, sex education, and access to birth control.

In Philadelphia, the fix for lead paint is fairly straightforward, and relatively low cost. But the problem is not being fixed; public health officials say lack of money and staff are to blame, as are some irresponsible landlords.

It’s a shame that the issue of childhood poverty is not front and center during this political season. If it were, perhaps people would be focused on solutions. Instead, we focus on things like email servers and hand size.

I hope that come 2017 the newly elected officials make reducing and eliminating childhood poverty a priority. If they succeed in doing so, I’m sure they would win in a landslide the next election.

I highly recommend both articles noted above. They are informative, well-written, and talk about issues that affect all of us.

Once we become informed, it’s hard to just sit back and do nothing.