PINE BLUFF, Ark. – Here’s the kind of person whom America’s presidential candidates just don’t talk about: a sweet, grinning, endangered 13-year-old boy named Emanuel Laster.
Emanuel has three televisions in his room, two of them gargantuan large-screen models. But there is no food in the house. As for the TVs, at least one doesn’t work, and the electricity was supposed to be cut off for nonpayment on the day I visited his house here in Pine Bluff: Emanuel’s mother deployed her pit bull terrier in the yard in hopes of deterring the utility man. (This seemed to work.)
The home, filthy and chaotic with a broken front door, reeks of marijuana. The televisions and Emanuel’s bed add an aspirational middle-class touch, but they were bought on credit and are at risk of being repossessed. The kitchen is stacked with dirty dishes, and not much else.
“I just go hungry,” Emanuel explained.
If Emanuel were in Aleppo, Syria, maybe we would – briefly, ineffectually – fret about his plight or discuss it in a presidential debate. But he inhabits the rubble of our domestic no man’s land of poverty, narcotics and hopelessness, and so he is invisible.
“I’d like to go to college,” said Emanuel, who earns A’s and B’s in school. “I’d be the first in my family. I want to be a police officer, or a fireman or a judge.” But, he acknowledged, there isn’t a single book in the house.
Emanuel’s ambition is commendable, but children of poverty face treacherous obstacles to success.
Emanuel has already been caught shoplifting – “I’m not doing that anymore,” he said firmly with what sounded like contrite embarrassment – and his mom, Christina Laster, worries about him. Gangs begin to recruit boys at about 14, and his friends carry knives.
Every year I hold a contest to choose a university student to travel with me on a reporting trip, typically to write about poverty, disease and hunger in Africa or Asia. This year, partly because America’s presidential candidates are ignoring domestic poverty, I led my win-a-trip tour right here in America. My contest winner, Cassidy McDonald of Wisconsin, a journalism student at the University of Notre Dame, traveled with me along a wrenching journey through this Other America, starting here in Pine Bluff.
What many Americans don’t understand about poverty is that it’s perhaps less about a lack of money than about not seeing any path out. More than 80 percent of American households living below the poverty line have air-conditioning, so in material terms they’re incomparably better off than poor families in India or Congo. In other ways their lives can be worse.
Too many American kids are set up for failure when they are born into what might be called the “broken class,” where violence, mental illness, drugs and sexual abuse infuse childhood. Yes, such young people sometimes do stupid things, but as a society, we fail them long before they fail us.
There are no silver bullets to eradicate these challenges, but there is “silver buckshot” – an array of policies that make a difference. Early childhood initiatives have a particularly good record, as do efforts to promote work, like the earned-income tax credit. Financial literacy programs help families manage money – and avoid buying large-screen TVs on credit.
One indication that we have the tools and know-how to cut poverty is that other countries have done so. In Britain in 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair announced a major attack on child poverty, and over the next five years the child poverty rate there dropped to 14 percent from 26 percent.
One tool, for example, is helping at-risk teenagers avoid pregnancy. Consider a 17-year-old we met in Tulsa, Nataly Ledesma, who became pregnant the summer after sixth grade at age 13 by a 28-year-old man.
“I had never heard of condoms or birth control,” she said. “By the time I took ‘family health' class in ninth grade, my baby was almost 2.”
If she had had early sex education and access to birth control, she said, she probably would not have become pregnant.
In short, what we lack most is not means but political will. The main public response to American poverty has been a great big national shrug – and that is why I wish the candidates were talking more about this, why I wish the public and the media were demanding that politicians address the issue.
Liberals too often are reluctant to acknowledge that struggling, despairing people sometimes compound their misfortune by self-medicating or engaging in irresponsible, self-destructive behavior. And conservatives too often want to stop the conversation there, without acknowledging our society’s irresponsible, self-destructive refusal to help children who are otherwise programmed for failure.
Child poverty is an open sore on the American body politic. It is a moral failing for our nation that one-fifth of our children live in poverty, by one common measure.
In Tulsa we also met a young woman almost the same age as Cassidy – and a perfect contrast. Cassidy, 21, is wicked smart and a brilliant future journalist. But she knows that she won the lottery of birth and was headed for success the moment she was born to a doctor and a lawyer in Madison, Wisconsin.
Bethany Underwood, 20, lost the lottery of birth. Her father was arrested for drug offenses before she was born. Her mother used methamphetamine when pregnant and then disappeared into prison when Bethany was 3. A friend of the family abused her sexually when she was small, and she responded to the pain by self-medicating.
“I began using marijuana at 9,” Bethany remembered. By 14 she had graduated to injecting meth and became an addict. “Getting drugs wasn’t a problem because all my friends’ parents did drugs,” she said. “We would steal it.”
While Cassidy was thriving at private school, Bethany was skipping school, dropping out in the eighth grade. “I’m at third grade in reading,” she said, “and probably second grade in math. Because third-graders are really good at math.”
Bethany ran away from home at 14 and eventually settled with a boyfriend who sold meth for a living; she says he treated her well, except for the time he dragged her out of a hotel room by the hair.
That was because she was injecting meth while pregnant with his baby. The child was born two months ago, and Bethany today is in the Tulsa Women and Children’s Center, a residential drug treatment program with a strong record of helping women start their lives over.
Sure, Bethany made poor choices, but almost any of us born in that environment might have done the same. And while we should demand better choices from people like Bethany, we should also insist on better choices from our politicians; both are necessary to reduce poverty.
Bethany and Cassidy are similar – both ebullient, friendly personalities, charming and quick to laugh. But in effect they grew up on different planets. And anybody who blames Bethany for her troubles doesn’t understand the axiom of America today: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.
Chipping away at these cycles of poverty isn’t easy, and we won’t have perfect success. But we aren’t even trying. We aren’t even paying attention.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof