What can we do about the crisis of child poverty?

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 12:49 PM

Jolting!  Appalling!   Those are the first words that hit me after reading Joe Polich’s op ed piece documenting Durham poverty.  (The Herald-Sun, Oct. 23)

Polich and the UNC Poverty Center studied census tracts -- neighborhoods, finding some Durham neighborhoods with a poverty rate greater than 50 percent.  In East Durham (Tract 10.01), where we’re now seeing increased services through the East Durham Children’s Initiative, the child poverty rate is an astounding 63 percent.  That’s a crisis -- hidden in plain sight.

The UNC study should shock our conscience.  It brings disturbing and needed public visibility to our (yes, our) poverty.  We all need to “own” the poverty. Everywhere I go in Durham, people say, “This poverty is unacceptable.  We’ve got to change it.”  

The question for all of us is, “What can we do about it?”  The most important word in that sentence is not “do” but “we.”  We first need to nurture the community of compassionate activists and agitators who are ready to get involved.  Our End Poverty Durham group is a growing cadre of people who have passion and energy for this mission, but we still need to move toward a critical mass.  We need to move from a campaign to a full-scale movement.

Twenty-seven percent of Durham children live in poverty.  How can we help them have a better life?  How can we help them live into their God-given potential?   Back in January we held a Faith Summit on Child Poverty at Union Baptist Church, the largest African American church in the city.  We thought 200 people would come, but 500 showed up, telling us there is energy and commitment from people of faith to alleviate the shameful 27 percent child-poverty rate.

One priority that emerged from the faith summit was this:  building intentional relationships across the lines of privilege and poverty.  To move toward this goal, we’ll soon be launching REAL Durham Circles, matching a family in material poverty (leader) with four volunteers called “allies” who make an 18-month commitment to meet weekly with the family.   REAL is an acronym for “Relationships Equipping Allies and Leaders.”   This is a national, evidence-based best practice for reducing poverty.  It’s not a one-time Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas present. It is a long-term relationship that will bring mutual benefits for both allies and leaders. 

REAL Durham is one way members of congregations and organizations can get involved to help reduce child poverty. There are many other ways – such as providing scholarships for low income children to attend preschool, providing books for children under 5, supporting the Diaper Bank that supplies diapers to low income families and supplying week-end backpack food for low income children.  All of these are helpful, but an even greater challenge is to examine the systemic issues (policies and structures) that keep children in poverty.

We need a major community-wide effort to alleviate the crisis of child poverty.  We need to support existing organizations and invest more resources to lift our children by helping their parents get better jobs and other opportunities.   It’s investment of social capital -- human support -- that will help our neighbors move toward self-sufficiency.  It’s not patronizing, it’s a mutual, reciprocal relationship.

We often quote the words of Lila Watson, an aboriginal leader:  “If you’ve come here to help me, you’re wasting your time.  But if your liberation is bound up with mine, we can work together.”  

Mel Williams is coordinator of End Poverty Durham --- a coalition of interfaith leaders and organizations seeking to reduce the 27 percent child poverty rate in our city.