Success stories won’t pull today’s kids out of poverty

by Veronica C. García
November 25, 2015

Much like Dan Herrera, I also made it out of poverty, but I realize that I was one of the lucky ones (Albuquerque Journal, Nov. 5, 2015). For every one that is successful there are hundreds who are not. None of us becomes successful entirely on our own. Teachers and government programs played an important role. If it wasn’t for food stamps and commodities I would’ve gone to school hungry. Government assistance after my Grandmother died ensured we could pay the rent. Encouraging and supportive teachers helped me make it through some pretty traumatic and rough times. President Johnson’s war on poverty allowed me attend college. As a first-generation high school and college graduate the UNM College Enrichment Program was key in my earning my first of three degrees.

The poverty we faced in the 1950s and ’60s is different from what children face today. Most kids had a stay-at-home parent. Fathers like Mr. Herrera’s may not have made great money in their blue-collar jobs, but it was still enough to put a roof over his family’s heads and food on their table. Many good-paying blue-collar jobs have disappeared, wages have stagnated, and prices have risen. Today it is extremely difficult to support a family on one income.

Childhood itself has changed tremendously. Our parents had more influence on us because we had fewer distractions. There were four TV channels. Video recorders and video games did not yet exist—not to mention computers, smart phones, etc. We didn’t even have that many toys that ran on batteries. Much less of our food was processed, so it was more nutrient-dense and was free of today’s preservatives and chemicals.

So what does this all mean? We had a parent who was there when we got home from school. We had toys and activities that helped us build the neuropathways our brains would require in order to learn in school. A lot of our play time required the use of our imagination because our toys didn’t “do” anything for us. It wasn’t just safe to play outside, it was safe to walk to a friend’s house or the local park by ourselves.

Yes, middle- and upper-income parents must mitigate the influence of our 21st century distractions, but today, as in the past, they have access to more resources. Higher-income parents don’t have to make the choice between high-quality foods and having enough to eat, and can keep their kids from languishing in front of a screen by getting them out to play soccer or have dance or music lessons. This is why middle- and high-income kids don’t lose as much ground over the summer—they have access to enriching activities that poorer kids do not.

There have been other significant changes. The ‘war on drugs,’ three-strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences have led to a much larger share of the population behind bars, meaning more single-parent families.

Mr. Herrera mentions the “poverty industry” in reference to advocates like me who work to ensure that children in poverty have access to the opportunities that will put them on the path to success. There is, in fact, a very real poverty industry—businesses that prey upon the poor like payday lenders, rent-to-own retailers, big tobacco, and the for-profit prison industry, among others.

We can neither enact policy by exception nor rely on the philosophy that, “I made it out and so should you!” Yes, many children made it out of the poverty of the 50s and 60s and many were lucky that they had a home, stable parents, and a family that valued education and maybe were able to make sacrifices to buy an encyclopedia. We’re not all that lucky.

Poverty is not an excuse, but it is a harsh reality that morally we can’t ignore.

Veronica C. García, Ed.D., is executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.