So I have been preoccupied with poverty lately, and the fact that it universally poses the biggest insult to a healthy childhood. The 1980 Rockefeller Foundation Commission on Children Report listed poverty as the biggest assault to children, and I have never forgotten this. Maybe because I was born in poverty in rural South Carolina. Maybe because I witnessed my parents working what seemed endless, sacrificial hours to own a modest home and educate their children. Maybe because as a scholarship recipient I attended schools with some of the wealthiest students in our nation. Maybe because I have acutely observed the differential and inadequate professional responses to poor people in schools, hospitals, courts, and social services systems, all over the world.
It seems that poverty, if not overcome, insidiously kills childhood dreams, destroys any sense of hope, and when experienced by a rapidly developing, young brain, prevents the internalization of a sense of personal vision and meaning. Cornel West, Princeton University, refers to this phenomenon as “existential nihilism”, or “existential death”. Children who experience this may appear to others to be “problem people” who must be managed, and for whom expectations are low to none. Ill prepared for society, their inability to tolerate frustration or to manage their anger, and follow social rules, is not understood. In reality, few of us take a second look when confronted with a young person who copes outside of our acceptable norms…..
Yet there are other dimensions to the costly, crippling impact of poverty. I recently got in touch with this when the power was out for nearly a week in my parkland community due to the crashing of many large, heavy trees. The visceral sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. (Will this ever end?) The self blame (I should have been prepared). The other blame (We need NOT talk about the utility company.) The overwhelming sense of responsibility (Can I care for my elderly parents next door, too?). The focus on practical survival (We must eliminate and replenish all perishable staples now). This temporary deprivation of physical comforts so drained my sensibilities that I am STILL very much in recovery mode.
Although I do understand poverty and deprivation, I had forgotten some things. This past week will help me keep it real.