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Child Poverty in America and Canada: A Leadership Call to President Obama and Prime Minister Harper

March 9, 2011

Updated February 2012

UPDATE: Since first publishing this post, I read an excellent commentary by Fareed Zakaria in Time magazine. Entitled “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” Zakaria paints a stark portrait of America’s steady decline, yet he ends with a call to action.

I’ve been a loyal CBS 60 Minutes fan for some 30 years. One of the most difficult broadcasts to watch was one on poverty in America.

The subject? “Homeless children: the Hard Times Generation.”

As the father of four adult children and two granddaughters I found this segment of the show very painful. When you put in context that it was about rapidly rising numbers of American children without a home, going to bed hungry every night and feeling guilty for their families’ circumstances, then you begin to wonder what in the world is taking place in the “Land of the Free. “

Watch this segment with superb reporter Scott Pelley who struggled to maintain his composure while interviewing children.

It’s hard to imagine that the supposedly greatest nation on Earth has descended to this state, where an estimated 25% of American children live in poverty. Read this startling report by the Brookings Institute, Families of the Recession: Unemployed Parents & Their Children. In addition to the historical millions of poor children in the US, the numbers are now augmented by one in nine children having an unemployed parent caused by the Great Recession. This translates into 8.1 million kids.

Think about it for a moment. We’re not talking about Haiti, Afghanistan or Somalia. We’re talking about the United States of America.

That’s what’s so wrong with this picture.

Kids going to bed hungry every night is corrupt.

Kids not having a permanent roof over their heads where they can feel safe is corrupt.

Kids believing that they’re part of the problem is corrupt.

Children who are barely teenagers trying to console their parents is corrupt.

Meanwhile, politicians continue their power games. I haven’t heard any of the Republican candidates for President speak about poverty in any meaningful way. Regardless of political party or level (national, state, municipal), politicians are ignoring a problem that has degenerated from what was a national embarrassment to one that is now scandalous.

How can President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner or Senate majority leader Harry Reid, along with their political peers, sleep at night? How can they proclaim America’s greatness, when millions of American children live in such repulsive situations? Do these men who hold the levers of political power not possess any level of human conscience?

Economists and business analysts prognosticate on the economy, expressing their pleasure that the US and Canadian economies are on the rebound, that economic growth for 2011will be moderate. These individuals hide out in the suburbs, driving their BMWs and Lexus, talking shop on the golf course or showing off their latest home improvements. They are blind to the pain that millions of children face every day, living in motels, the back seat of the used family care, scrounging in dumpsters behind fast-food restaurants.

Scott Pelley in his story referred to America’s “Motel Generation.”

What the hell has happened to America?

How can the United States hold up its head with any semblance of pride to chastise corrupt despots in a long list of countries, when it can’t even look after its most vulnerable citizens?

Scott Pelley’s poignant closing comment about America’s homeless families strikes home:

“Shaped by homelessness and hunger and by memories of neighbors who opened their homes and by families who refused to be broken.”

The people who refuse to be broken, who continue to hold their heads up and who make every possible sacrifice to care for their children are America’s heroes, not the self-serving political leaders who seek out every means to acquire and maintain power.

I can understand why citizens living in various states are pissed off with their governments’ fiscal mismanagement, and are now resorting to sit-ins at state legislatures and engaging in street protests. Go for it, folks; that’s what democracy’s about.

But for God’s sake stand up for your country’s children! Don’t expect Washington to do this; the rot has now set in too deeply.

To my fellow Canadians, don’t feel too complacent. Canada has ignored child poverty for far too long. In 1989, Canada’s House of Commons unanimously voted to eradicate child poverty by 2000. This was an across-party resolution to deal with its the blight. While child poverty declined a few percentage points by the mid nineties, it subsequently reversed course.

The reputable Conference Board of Canada presents a ranking of child poverty among industrialized countries.

My fellow Canadians, hang your collective head in shame. Here are some highlights from the Conference Board:

• Canada’s poverty rate is 15.1%,
• The US rate is 20.6%; Ireland and Germany (16.3); Italy (15.5); Japan (13.7) and Australia (11.8); Netherlands (11.5). Denmark has the lowest rate of 2.7%, followed by Sweden (4.) and Finland (4.2),
• Canada earns a “C” and ranks 13th out of 17 peer countries,
• More than one out of every seven Canadian kid lives in poverty,
• Canada’s child poverty rate rose during the mid 1990s and mid 2000s,
• According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Canada has experienced the second largest increase in child poverty between the mid-nineties and mid-2000s, preceded by Germany.

It’s important to note that while the US (along with the UK, Italy and Australia) reduced their rates, the 2008 recession especially affected that country. OECD data have not yet caught up with the deterioration during the past two years in the US.

Countries that have earned the grade of “A” in addressing child poverty include Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Not too shabby for so-called “Socialist” countries.

When you place the moral issue of child poverty beside the economic issues of human capital development in a globalized economy and the consequences of an ageing population, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the calamitous consequences of ignoring the problem.

President Obama and Prime Minister Harper: do you get the picture now?

If you love your countries’ children, what are you going to do about it?


Our scientific powers have outrun our spiritual powers; we have guided missiles and mis-guided men.
– Martin Luther King, Jr. (from Strength to Love, 1963)


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5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 29, 2013 7:05 pm

    First of all I would like to say awesome blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I’ve had trouble
    clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first
    10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just
    trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?
    Thanks!

    • May 29, 2013 8:45 pm

      Thanks for stopping by my blog. I clear my head a number of ways, but two favorites are walking my Lab in the morning and going for mountain bike rides in the woods. Works great!

  2. March 12, 2011 2:51 pm

    You ask what has happened to America. Twenty years ago I moved overseas with my foreign husband to what was then, a third-world country. I have watched American descend into third-world status while my previous third-world country has made tremendous progress. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what makes a country be classed as third-world. I see one of the biggest indicators as being how far the gulf is between the rich and and the poor. That gulf in America has widened dramatically in the past 20 years, and at a greatly accelerated pace since Clinton left office. Many of those in the middle class have fallen into the lower classes, and seem to have no hope of improving their situation as their former jobs have been shipped to third-world countries. I have no solution, but it’s a sad situation.

    • March 12, 2011 3:13 pm

      Well expressed, Lynne. We’re seeing a massive distribution of wealth around the globe as emerging economies gain market share. Unfortunately, Americans seem more predisposed to polarized politics, which is fostering hatred and intolerance of outsiders (read Muslims in the current context). Strong national leadership has been absent for many decades. The Military Industrial Complex maintains its grip on political power. The Republican Party comprises a zoo-like list, ranging from actually pretty competent people to the lunatic fringe. Obama’s much stated “moon-shot” never materialized. This could have been a focused effort to close the gap between the haves and have-nots, especially kids living in poverty.

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