Comment: Beyond numbers, this is what child poverty looks like

A look at requests to a charity on behalf of kids shows what children need to thrive and succeed.

By Theresa Vargas / The Washington Post

The 12-year-old had seen too much.

That’s how a message sent to a Virginia organization about the girl began.

“She’s in counseling but still harbors a lot of anger,” it explained. “Her therapist recommends she try boxing to release the negative energy but Mom can’t afford the gloves, headgear and proper shoes.”

All the requests for help that come into the Alexandria-based nonprofit Alice’s Kids contain a small ask and an explanation for the need. They come from teachers and social workers who work with children across the nation and hope the organization will send gift cards to cover expenses those children’s families cannot. They write about clothes that are too small, hair that has been neglected for too long and school events that cost too much for paychecks that have been stretched too thin.

On their own, the requests offer intimate and at times painful glimpses into the lives of low-income students.

Taken together, they provide what statistics on child poverty in America can’t: a view of what it really looks like.

“I have a student that is not making any progress in school,” reads one request. “When I asked her if I could do anything to make her feel better or do something special for her birthday she replied, ‘My mom had to cancel the wet cat food order for our cats because of not having enough money. If I could be gifted something, it would be wet cat food. Because I know this would make my cats happy.’ I want to request a gift card to Petco.”

In the past year, I have written often about the inequities that exist among children in the Washington, D.C., region and across the country. I have done that because I believe that to do nothing about child poverty is to accept lost human potential; and because for me the issue is personal. I grew up attending schools in neglected neighborhoods and have witnessed how a lack of resources can change the trajectory of lives. It doesn’t just derail plans. It also prevents plans from ever being made. It keeps children from reaching and hoping.

That I made it from a low-performing high school to a high-ranking university made me an exception, and when you occupy that rare space, you remain forever aware that the norm meant many students who were equally deserving did not get to go to college.

During the second year of the pandemic, something surprising occurred with child poverty across the nation: The rate went down. Recent findings from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that during a time when the country experienced massive losses of jobs and lives, government policies and actions helped drive a reduction in child poverty to a record low.

“This is stunning progress; in 2018 nearly 1 in 4 Black children lived in families with incomes below the poverty line. In 2021, fewer than 1 in 10 did,” reads a statement about the findings. “Progress was similarly large among Latino and American Indian and Alaskan Native children, who also had child poverty rates well above the rate for children overall prior to the pandemic.”

Those findings are significant because they show that when the nation chooses to reduce child poverty, it can. They show that congressional lawmakers hold the power to make that happen, if they want.

In 2023, it will fall to Congress to decide whether to make reducing child poverty a priority. The expanded child tax credit was found to have kept millions of children above the poverty line, and when lawmakers allowed it to expire, millions fell below it. Letting that happen was a choice.

When we talk about child poverty, we usually turn to the data, but numbers can’t show what’s at stake on a day-to-day level. That’s why I reached out to Alice’s Kids.

I first wrote about the nonprofit in 2019. At the time, its funding and reach were relatively small. Since then, it has grown its national network, social media presence and budget. In 2022, it provided more than $750,000 in gift cards to thousands of students across the nation. The organization provides gift cards so that adults in those children’s lives can buy them what they need, allowing those adults to be the heroes and those children to not know they received charity.

I asked Ron Fitzsimmons, the executive director of Alice’s Kids, if I could see the requests the organization received in 2022, and he sent me many. I decided to share some with you — while removing all identifying details about the children — because they are telling. They offer a rare window into what children around us have been experiencing, including many who live just miles from the lawmakers who hold the power to change their fates.

“Child is essentially raising herself now,” reads a request about a 12-year-old girl in Virginia. It describes her as losing the grandmother who raised her and living with a father who doesn’t interact with her. “She is resilient but experiencing depression due to the loss of her grandmother and current living situation. Child is excited to be part of our running club but doesn’t have any of the clothing or appropriate running shoes. We would like her to be able to get one full running outfit with sweatshirt for the winter, sports bra, and running shoes.”

“The student is soft-spoken and a bit shy,” reads a request about a girl in Maryland. “The student is in need of a sketch book for her art class. She had saved up the money to purchase it on her own but unfortunately that money has been stolen. The student needs the sketch book in order for her work to be graded in class.”

“The child is incredibly smart, talkative, and curious,” reads a request about a 5-year-old in Washington, D.C., whose mom works as a teacher’s aide and attends a university. The request describes the family as struggling to pay bills. “She is inspired by her mother to do well in school. … The child needs to attend a summer camp program so that she does not fall behind her peers. Additionally, there isn’t anyone to watch her at home during the summer while her mother works, so she would be spending her time alone in her apartment if she cannot attend summer camp.”

Running shoes. A sketchbook. Summer camp. The lack of those basic things is what child poverty in America looked like in 2022.

It looked like an 11-year-old girl who needed to go to a lice clinic after home treatments didn’t work.

It looked like an autistic boy who couldn’t afford a ticket to a school football game he wanted to attend to watch his best friend play.

It looked like three siblings who not only had to mourn the sudden loss of their cousin but also worry they wouldn’t have anything nice to wear when they served as pallbearers at his funeral.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @byTheresaVargas.

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