When I met Donna on my 2012 campervan journey across America, she was a 31-year old single mother living with her two children in a Missoula, Montana mobile home. My campground and her trailer park shared a laundry room and while we were both waiting for an empty washing machine, she shared her story with me.
Donna lost her house when she lost her job in the Great Recession and she had not recovered. She was temporarily employed at a minimum-wage, part-time job and was renting her mobile home from a family member.
She told me, “My daily life consists of getting the kids up, dressed, fed and off to school; catching a bus to work, being on my feet for six hours, then hurrying home to be there when the kids get back. I help them with homework, try to make a nutritious meal out of our food stamp allotment, get them to bed and then relax by myself for a short while before I go to bed around ten. I don’t know what I will do when school is out next month. I can’t afford daycare and can’t leave them here alone; I have to work.”
Stereotyped as a Freeloader?
Donna was concerned about being stereotyped as a freeloader on government programs, but “We don’t have a car or a television and we depend on government assistance to make ends meet. I have a junior college degree and was a good bookkeeper when I was fully employed. My boss was a decent man who treated me with respect and paid me a fair wage. It hurt my heart to see him lose his business and it hurt my soul to tell my children we were leaving the only home they ever knew.
“In my current job I do menial work and am paid $7.65 an hour. They treat me like I’m invisible, unless something goes wrong and then I get the blame. But I won’t give up. I owe it to my kids and to myself to climb back to where I was. I don’t know how or when. I sometimes just feel desperate and sometimes I get mad. When the bus to work takes me past big homes with beautiful yards behind fences that separate them from the rest of us, I wonder what their life is like. But all I want is to get back to where I was.”
Now, eight years later, I still think about Donna and her children and I hope she has indeed “climbed back to where” she was. But the fact is that poverty and a vast economic inequality still cascades through America’s social, educational, health and economic systems, flooding our nation with particularly cruel outcomes for children and families like Donna’s.
The facts are clear: Children are the poorest age group in America, with 11.9 million of them living in poverty. Just over 30% of all Black children in America, 29% of Native American children, and nearly 24% of Hispanic children live in poverty. More than four million American children do not have healthcare, 2.5 million are homeless, 13 million are “food insecure” (meaning they do not get adequate nutrition) and 22 million depended on school lunches—but, then, today the schools are closed.
The Truth is in the Stories
The statistics detailing poverty and inequality in America fill hundreds of books and thousands of pages of reports and studies—and, I have read more than my share of them. But the important information is not found in books, reports and studies. The numbers do not evoke a compassionate understanding of the deep pain and despair that always accompanies poverty. Numbers are merely a measurement; the truth is found in the lives and stories of people like Donna and her children, people who live and struggle and keep trying every day yet remain in the grip of poverty.
America is the wealthiest nation in the world, yet it is also one of the most economically unequal. Among our G7 peers we are seventh in terms of inequality, and among 30 industrial nations we rank 27th. Those of us who live behind the fences that Donna saw as separating “them from the rest of us”, have an obligation to proclaim that the level of poverty and the increasing inequality in America is a deep national sickness that needs to be cured. For a path to the cure see my post on this site, “Where is the Soul of America?”