The face of local poverty

In the Pacific Northwest, poverty chisels unlined faces.

Ben Wattenberg, a former speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson, said that it was easy to track the poor in the 1960s. “Just go into any community and find the old people,” he said. LBJ’s War on Poverty, in concert with the postwar economic boom, elevated seniors from the shadows and provided a floor with Medicare and a safety net. When the net comes unseamed and the economy sputters, however, the first to tumble through are children.

One regional index of child poverty is the number of students in Snohomish County who receive free and reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program. As The Herald’s Amy Daybert reports, the percentage of county students eligible for subsidized lunches has risen from 32.9 percent in 2007 to 42.9 percent in 2011. The numbers are fallout of the Great Recession and then some. Social scientists would call the upward lurch statistically significant. Everyone else would call it intolerable.

The devil is in the definitions. There are poor children in Washington and there are children living in extreme poverty. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, the number of poor children registered around 251,000 last year, or 16.2 percent. The number of children living in extreme poverty in 2011 was 108,682 or 7 percent. Imagine a city the size of Everett. Then scatter these kids from Spokane to Monroe. Dispersal makes young faces less visible, the crisis less pressing.

Childhood poverty reflects a stagnant economy, but it can also be reduced to a political question. Children don’t have a voice, while adults have the money and means to contour public opinion (And hell hath no fury like aging Baby Boomers.) The political vacuum is at last getting filled by groups such as the Children’s Alliance. The Alliance’s core values are unambiguous. “It is not a matter of charity but rather of justice,” one value reads. “As adults, we are individually and collectively responsible for the well being of children.”

The latter point should transcend political affiliation and resonate with both believers and skeptics of the welfare state (and all political persuasions in between.) From working-class parent to scofflaw dope-addled parent, children should be held harmless. As the Alliance notes, “What we do today, or fail to do, has long-term implications.”

Is there a remedy? A buoyant economy lifts all boats, but the water is rising too slowly. We need to continue to advance early learning, proper childhood nutrition (it’s a challenge to study when you’re hungry) and federal programs with documented results such as Head Start. Long-term implications matter.

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