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The face of poverty is a child

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Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star.


Here is a reality check. Despite well-meaning discussions on racial disparities in America, most poor kids are not who you may think.

Absorb these nuggets from the National Center for Children in Poverty:

"About 60 percent of black and Latino children and 57 percent of American Indian children live in low-income families, compared to about 26 percent of white children and 30 percent of Asian children. At the same time, however, whites comprise the largest group of low-income children: 11 million white children live in families with incomes below twice the federal poverty line."

The center has calculated that 42 percent of children should be considered low-income. The center uses the term "low-income" for families with incomes below twice the official poverty level.

Consider those figures: More than two out of five of the nation's children are growing up in struggling families -- and as the Great Recession lingers, their situations aren't likely to improve anytime soon.

If this is news to you, don't feel bad; many members of Congress are without a clue as well.

By the time you read this, Democrats and Republicans might have reached some sort of compromise to raise the debt ceiling. And to do the deal they will almost certainly have turned a cold shoulder to the needs of low-income children -- that is, to kids whose future labor and taxpaying productivity will one day determine the prosperity or the poverty of the nation as a whole. Few in Congress even seem aware that this should be a concern.

Yet these millions of poor children will grow up. And if they never get educated to the extent of their abilities, they'll never be employed to their full capacities, and then the conditions that have emerged in our current recession will be the new normal. And many Americans will continue to view the problem of poverty solely through the prism of race.

Dismissive attitudes toward the poor have been on shameful display during the debt-ceiling talks. Note how the earned income tax credit, Pell grants that make college accessible for low-income children, and child care subsidies -- so many uplifting measures for working poor families -- were discussed as arbitrary and expendable in the so-called "belt tightening."

I believe this negligent attitude is easier when we discuss poverty in terms of racial disparities. Wealth and education gaps between the races do deserve attention -- after all, they highlight lasting legacies of policies and laws that unfairly affected minorities (and laws that continue to do so). And yet, when the good folks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Black Caucus and the Asian Pacific American Caucus reach for the same old arguments, as they did during the debt talks, it makes it easy to draw the battle lines according to the same old tribal allegiances. It's simply too convenient for some to think "low-income equals minority people." And then put concern on the back burner.

If it takes reminding some in Washington that a lot of white folks are suffering, too, to get the nation on the right track in regard to poor children, then I'm all for emphasizing the point.

I'll tell you what the true face of poverty is: It is a child.

A shamefully large number of those children are growing up in economically unstable homes. In this seemingly unending recession, the hardest hit have been those who don't have college educations. Families that were subsisting one or two paychecks away from disaster have hit the wall. Every month more join their ranks. That does not bode well for their ability to afford a college education for their children -- or in a lot of cases just to provide the stability it takes to graduate from high school.

Just who does Congress think America can count on to rebuild its economy and thrive in the future?

Too many Americans like to think the poor are "not our problem." They are dead wrong. They are our future.


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