By Joan Wickett
The tragedy of poverty rests not only on the unemployed and the homeless. It is a legacy handed down to the children, the innocent victims. I was recently made aware of the reality of this through the stories of an elementary teacher.
Her class is not what you would expect of a second grade, but in many ways it is typical of so many. Their stories are echoed in all areas of our country, including Western New York, with slight variations. This particular group lives in a small town in what once was a prosperous area of New England. The mines that once supplied a livelihood for most of the town shut down, and the area suffers for it.
Many of her students’ parents, unable to find a decent living, have in depression turned to alcohol or drugs for consolation. Many families have split, leaving abandoned mothers with questionable “boyfriends.”
For the children, school has become their refuge, their safe place. They are fed there – breakfast, lunch and a snack. Their teacher is compassionate and encouraging, a contrast to their bickering home life.
School holidays are not looked forward to, but a cause of anxiety. Home life is not always pleasant, sometimes even dangerous, as adult frustration is often taken out on the innocent.
Jessica, a shy little girl of 7, is upset this Monday morning. She could not complete her weekend homework assignment and does not want to disappoint her teacher. With limited budgets and inadequate personnel, the local social agencies place many of the families temporarily in less than desirable hotels.
At the end of the month, the bureaucracy failed, and payment for the next month’s rent was not met. The family was evicted and had to find whatever shelter they could. Having spent the weekend in the family car, Jessica could not find a pencil to complete her homework. Her family will reapply for help, but with the overload of paperwork, it could be days before a new “home” is found for them.
Tom is tall for his age, but his slim figure causes his brother’s hand-me-down clothes to hang loosely on him. His toes are sticking out of his worn shoes. His mother had promised a new pair of shoes with the next check, but a pressing “habit” has swallowed up much of the check. He will have to make do for another month.
Jason is huddled in the corner of the room – his eyes barely open. He has had a busy weekend. The family lost the lease on their apartment. A relative has temporarily sheltered them in a garage, but the space heater is inadequate for the New England winters, and he was unable to sleep because of the cold. His mother, too, will apply to the local agencies for help, but sometimes help takes time.
Government agencies help when they can, as they do in our area, but lack of funds and personnel hinder them and the occasional tragedy happens. The lucky ones will survive, but with what kind of future?
The lessons of abuse and neglect are well imbedded in them. Actually, it is the only life they know. The lessons will not be forgotten. It will follow them, to be taught to their children, the next generation – our future citizens.
There obviously is no easy answer to the problem of unemployment and poverty. I do think, however, agencies serving children should receive priority help. Without change, the cycle of abuse and violence will only continue and multiply.
Maybe it’s time we re-evaluated our national priorities and questioned where our national wealth is spent.