Picture your average American playground. Of the five children waiting in line at the slide or soaring on the swingset, one of them may be living in poverty. Roughly 16.1 million kids in the United States now come from families where the total household income is less than the federal poverty level of $23,550 per year for a family of four. Almost half of those kids live in deepest poverty, on household earnings of less than $11,775 per year. The number of homeless children enrolled in school topped one million at last count. The epidemic is growing fastest in the suburbs, where the number of poor families jumped by 64 percent from 2000 to 2011.
"Families with young children are the poorest segment of our society," says Benard Dreyer, M.D., professor of pediatrics at New York University's School of Medicine and cochair of the Academic Pediatric Association's Task Force on Childhood Poverty. Research shows that low-income children as young as 9 months of age show weaker cognitive and social development than their advantaged peers. "Poor mothers of young children are more likely to experience depression, which means they're less likely to talk to and engage with their babies in ways that promote development," explains Sheila Smith, Ph.D., director of the Early Childhood Program at the National Center for Children in Poverty in New York City. Even when these parents aren't depressed, they may be working long hours, living in unsafe or unstable housing, or struggling to put dinner on the table. "These children are dealing with all the repercussions of poverty during the crucial years for early brain development," says Dr. Dreyer. "After these effects take hold in the first three or four years, it's hard to catch up."
More than 30 percent of children in poverty show signs of emotional or behavioral problems, studies show. Their physical health suffers too: Children born into poverty experience dramatically higher rates of infant mortality and low birthweight. As they grow, they are more likely to struggle with both hunger and weight problems, as well as chronic medical issues like asthma and diabetes.
So what's the answer? Childhood poverty is a complex issue, but the solutions don't have to be. Dr. Dreyer points to the United Kingdom, which cut its rate of children in poverty from 26 percent in 1998 to just 12 percent in 2008 through a series of tax credits, government programs, and its first national minimum wage, which is set at a higher level than in the U.S. "When there is a national will to fix this problem, it's possible," he says. At press time, Congress was poised to allow cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, as food stamps are now known) effective November 1, reducing benefits for more than 22 million children. You can contact your representative to ask him or her to protect SNAP.
There's more you can do. Consider making this holiday season a time for your family to help kids in need. We've compiled a list of incredible nonprofit organizations working on every angle of this issue. They've received a rating of three stars or higher from Charity Navigator, an independent evaluator that assesses charities on their financial health and accountability and transparency--so you can rest assured that your dollars will go directly to where they can do the most good.
In 1986, musician Paul Simon befriended a homeless woman named Marie whom he saw every morning as he walked to his recording studio in New York City. Then one day, Marie wasn't there--and Simon had no way of finding out whether she was okay. He became interested in the problem of homelessness and met child advocate Irwin Redlener, M.D., now a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University (and a Parents advisor), and they spent a day visiting homeless shelters. They didn't find Marie, though they discovered another disturbing fact: "We saw what was essentially a warehouse for a thousand homeless kids and their families," Dr. Redlener remembers. "And nobody was paying attention to whether they were receiving even the most basic medical care." Together with Dr. Redlener's wife, Karen, they launched the Children's Health Fund (CHF) in a "big blue bus" that housed a state-of-the-art mobile medical clinic. Today, the organization runs a network of 50 mobile health clinics, as well as more than 200 fixed-site health centers, in underserved, low-income neighborhoods across the country, reaching more than 350,000 poor and homeless children to date.
How You Can Help
$25 can get three babies essential immunizations. $50 can buy asthma meds for one child. $100 can help get care for a sick homeless child.
Nevaeh, age 4, had her right leg surgically removed due to a birth disorder. But her prosthetic leg doesn't stop her from pretending to be a princess or a teacher, says her mom, Candace Sanders, of Union, South Carolina. And Sanders, a single mom of three kids, encourages Nevaeh's imagination. "I use play to teach my children shapes, numbers, and the alphabet," she says. "That's how they learn best."
Sanders learned about the importance of play through an early-education program from Save the Children (STC), the iconic nonprofit that has been working to help poor children in the United States since the Great Depression, when it launched a hot-lunch program for hungry schoolchildren in Kentucky. "The community saw an immediate rise in attendance and academic achievement," says Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of STC. "That became the model for our federal school-lunch program."
Today the global Save the Children movement works to improve children's health, nutrition, and education in 120 countries around the world. Its early-education programs also serve kids living on Native American reservations, in California farming communities, Appalachia, and the rural South. "We work to help a community better serve its own children and lift itself up over time," says Miles. "Our philosophy: To have the greatest impact, we cannot do it alone."
How You Can Help
For less than $1 per day, sponsor an American child, corresponding via regular updates while providing early-education opportunities, nutrition, and school health.
"In the U.S., you can't always tell someone is hungry just by looking at them," says Debbie Shore, cofounder of Share Our Strength, which she and her brother, Bill, started in response to the Ethiopian famine crisis of 1984. They expanded their efforts to reach families here at home. "Hungry kids suffer a lifetime of cognitive and physical development challenges."
At Share Our Strength, the focus is on access. "We have the food supply in this country," Shore notes. "We also have government programs and services. But of the 21 million kids getting free or reduced-price lunch, only half are also getting free or reduced-price breakfast and only 3 million of them participate in summer feeding programs." So the No Kid Hungry campaign helps schools make sure that more children take advantage of the school's breakfast program. In one model, teachers can provide grab-and-go options in the classroom. It's working: Kids who participate in school breakfast score an average of 17.5 percent higher on math tests and attend class more often.
How You Can Help
December is Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry month. Raise awareness by pledging to end childhood hunger at nokidhungry.org. Then make a donation; even giving $1 will connect a child in need to up to ten meals.
Like many of the working poor, Gerald falls into an ever-widening gap: The single dad raising three daughters in Boston earns slightly too much to qualify for SNAP but not enough to cover all of the family's bills. So he relies on the Kids Cafe program for a healthy meal and snacks after school. "They serve good food and the girls enjoy it," he says.
Kids Cafe is just one way that Feeding America distributes nearly 3.4 billion pounds of food to 37 million Americans annually, through food banks and food-assistance agencies. In 2012, it served more than 84 million meals to kids. "This is not simply a moral issue," says Angela De Paul, Feeding America spokesperson. She cites scientific evidence suggesting that food-insecure children are less likely to become productive adults. "The nation's economic growth depends on the well-being of our children--so the existence of child hunger threatens our country's future prosperity."
How You Can Help
Join the annual Give A Meal campaign: A $1 donation provides nine meals. $19 will feed a family for two weeks; $40 for a month; $120 for three months.
With all of the looming threats in a poor child's life, whether she gets recess might seem like a minor concern. "But for many of these kids, school is the one chance they have to play in a safe environment," says Jill Vialet, founder of Playworks, a nonprofit focused on making recess fun and safe for kids in low-income urban schools. In too many of these settings, playgrounds get overrun with fights--if schools can even provide recess at all. "Instead of going back to class energized, the kids return upset and unable to focus," Vialet explains. "We can change this."
Playworks, offered in more than 380 schools in 23 cities, places a full-time coach to organize games at recess that help kids stay active while learning about teamwork and conflict resolution. The coaches also lead before- or after-school activities and establish events promoting physical activity, inclusion, and other pro-social skills.
Happily, researchers at Stanford University have found that kids at Playworks schools stay more physically active and experience 43 percent less bullying than kids not in the program. "When recess becomes a healthy part of the school day, kids carry that positive feeling with them into their classroom, back to their neighborhood, and out into the world," says Vialet.
How You Can Help
$35 pays for balls and cones for one school. $75 will provide T-shirts for a school's student leaders. $166 pays for one child at a Playworks school for a year.
"I was blessed to be at a convergence of great role models and major social events," says Marian Wright Edelman, who credits her parents' belief in service and her experiences with civil-rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., for her drive to create the Children's Defense Fund in 1973. After working with poor families in Mississippi--helping parents get off food stamps and find jobs, and assisting them in getting their kids an education--she witnessed something profound: "The sight of children having hope was incredible," recalls Edelman.
Forty years later, CDF is still fighting to create opportunities for all children by advocating for changes in public policy while also working directly with kids in need. It played a key role in expanding the Children's Health Insurance Program, as well as Head Start and Early Head Start, both of which support low-income children and their families. More than 115,000 children have participated in CDF Freedom Schools, after-school and summer programs designed to help foster a love of reading, build self-esteem, and engage in community service.
How You Can Help
$25 gets a Freedom Schools book and teaching materials to one child. $100 will give a child several books plus teaching materials. $250 provides a child with meals and snacks at the Freedom Schools summer program.
On the first day that Ethan Peritz entered a classroom as a Jumpstart Corps member, excited to share his love of reading with a group of low-income kids in Boston, a 4-year-old boy named Christopher spat in his face. Every week, Ethan tried to read him a story according to the Jumpstart curriculum, which is specially designed to help preschool-age kids get ready for kindergarten, but Christopher refused to acknowledge him. One day Ethan heard the little boy making noises and realized he was beatboxing, so Ethan started beatboxing too. By the school year's end, Christopher, a Haitian immigrant who had survived the earthquake at age 3 and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, was able to greet Ethan with a smile and write out his full name.
"Those kinds of stories tell us how Jumpstart does so much more than early-education intervention," says Naila Bolus, the organization's president and CEO. Founded 20 years ago, Jumpstart is in 76 cities across 14 states plus Washington, D.C. Members work with kids to help them read, improve vocabulary, and learn letters, numbers, colors, and shapes. Research shows that these children make significantly greater gains in reading, social skills, and school readiness than other kids in similar low-income settings.
How You Can Help
$25 will supply a year's worth of crayons and paper for one classroom. $100 will get two classrooms puzzles and song charts. $250 provides five Jumpstart sessions for one child
Harlem Children's Zone was founded in 1970 with the goal of working with young children in Harlem who came from troubled low-income families and who were often absent from school. Today, the nonprofit has a much bigger mission: to break the cycle of poverty for the 10,000 children and their families living in a 97-block area of Harlem.
To do this, HCZ offers a range of educational programs and also runs two Promise Academy charter schools and a variety of health and social-service initiatives. In the 2012-13 school year, 100 percent of the kids who attended HCZ's preschool program achieved school readiness according to national standards, and 98 percent of the Promise Academy's 2013 graduating senior class headed off to college last fall.
HCZ just opened a new school and community center in the St. Nicholas Houses, historically a highly vulnerable stretch of central Harlem. "It used to be held hostage by the drug dealers," says Anne Williams-Isom, the organization's COO. She and HCZ's CEO and president, Geoffrey Canada, see their project as a model that other struggling neighborhoods can replicate, no matter what their challenges. "We want other communities to do what we're doing because we know it works," she says.
Meanwhile, both Canada and Williams-Isom stay plugged in to the needs of local families. "One mom lost her kids to foster care last year; we've helped her get them back. Now she's calling me any morning they're running late for school to let me know what's up," says Williams-Isom. "We're holding her to a high standard because those kids matter--but we're also wrapping our arms around her. We're treating her like the strong mom we know she can be."
How You Can Help
$50 gets supplies to an elementary-school classroom; $100 provides a month of healthy lunches for one student; and $250 provides uniforms for five pre-K students.
Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Parents magazine.