I was on vacation and have been unable to post for a few days. I was going to skip today as well, but there is a great article in today’s Huffington Post. It describes how children are made to work throughout most of the world. The two main exceptions: Europe and North America (plus the lightly populated Australia). What do these areas have in common? Workers joined together in unions, often allying with religious reformers and advocates for children, to fight for laws that protected children from exploitations. The next time someone speaks against unions, remind them that there are many places in the world where there are no unions. Those are places where wages are very low and an adult can be working next to a child.
Aljazeera America reports that children as young as 7 are harvesting tobacco in the United States. It cites a report by Human Rights Watch that features interviews with 130 children in four Southern states. The children are paid the minimum wage of $7.25, which does nothing to mitigate the fact that child labor is wrong. Apparently, these children are working legally according to a law that lets children of any age work on “small” farms. Worse still, many of the children report becoming ill from a condition called nicotine poisoning. This report is outrageous. Will it become part of our political debate? Of course not. The children are poor and minority. They are invisible, and what is being done to them is shameful.
Writing in The Nation, Dana Goldstein examines the role toys and gender play in the careers children pursue when they grow up. Boys who play with computer games and toys like Legos that encourage spatial reasoning are more likely to pursue technical careers, which offer higher salaries. Experts cited in the article encourage parents to expose girls and boys to the kind of play that fosters an interest in understanding how the world works. They also say schools need to emphasize real world examples in teaching science and math, which will engage both boys and girls. All kids love to play. Parents and teachers need to encourage the kind of play that will give them the most opportunities later in life.
[On Sundays, Career Calling ponders life and work in “Sabbath.”]
Not Having a Chance
In yesterday’s Chicago Sun-Times, I came across an article that compared children in Hammond, Indiana with Carmel, a city three miles to the south. Children in Hammond grow up in oppressive poverty. The city’s median income is $10,581. The children of Carmel are more fortunate growing up in a community where the median household income is $138,713. But poverty isn’t simply about money. As the article points out, children in Hammond are more likely to come to school with poorly developed social and motor skills. They are more likely to face violent crime and murder. The article ends with news that I found unbelievable: over the next two years Hammond will lose $2.3 million in state funding for schools. Carmel will gain almost $1 million. This makes no sense unless we consider the relation of poverty and education.
Jonathan Kozol made a similar comparison in a book published in 1991, Savage Inequalities. Some people say we can’t just “throw money at the problem.” Kozol demonstrated that wealthy communities tend to have fewer problems (and many more opportunities). Some wealthier districts spent more than two times as much per pupil as did inner city schools. Kozol also argued that challenged urban schools were more likely to be populated by students from minority groups, which has led to a new form of segregation, education that is separate and unequal.
Education reforms ranging from magnet schools to charter schools to vouchers all promise results. However, none speak to the problem’s root cause: Poverty. According to the University of Michigan, which uses Census data, 20.7% of American children lived in poverty in 2008. Since that time, the economy has become more challenged. It is safe to assume that the percentage is even higher today given increased unemployment and cuts in state assistance programs. While more than a third of African American and Latino children grow up in poverty, only 11.9% of white children do. However percentages can be deceiving. A larger number of white children (4,850,000) lived in poverty than African American children (4,480,000). Clearly, poverty affects children from all corners of the country.
In an era when political debates focus on taxes, deficits, and job growth, we tend to forget about those who live with the least. President Johnson’s War on Poverty – like all the social wars that followed it – was a nice idea with few results. Now some politicians have forgotten the poor and are attacking workers and retired workers for their “entitlements.” This shift means that the invisible poor, something Michael Harrington described 50 years ago in The Other America, have challenged physics by becoming even more invisible.
What is the solution? I don’t know. I do know that poor children did not choose the circumstances of their life. Can America be an “exceptional” nation with over 20% of its children growing up in poverty? What will the future be like for those children as they enter a work force with fewer opportunities for people who do not graduate from high school or only have a high school degree?
Children in poverty challenge our country’s beliefs about equality and opportunity. How can the children of Hammond compete with the children of Carmel? They live in two worlds, one that almost guarantees success and one were failure is almost certain. We need to do more than change the schools these children go to. We must find a way to offer them the American Dream – or we should stop talking about the American Dream if it only applies some children.
Sunday Extra Helping
The activist Van Jones is heading a new movement called Rebuild the Dream. It is calling for an economy that serves working and middle class people, not Wall Street.