This paper will look at the issue of child poverty and food insecurity in the Twin County Region of Virginia. Using statistics from the Virginia Department of Education and the United States Department of Agriculture and information from the documentary film, What Poor Child is This (2011) my analysis will show how child poverty is a problem perpetuated culturally and institutionally while offering potential effective solutions to counter these detrimental forces.
Child Poverty in the Twin Counties
The documentary film, What Poor Child is This (2011) discusses child poverty in the United States. It emphasizes cultural and systemic aspects of life in the US that complicate the real problem of child poverty. An estimated 12 million children suffer from food insecurity within the richest country on Earth. This statistic is ahead of any childhood disease, accidental, or terrorism statistic related to children in America. In the city of Galax, Grayson County, and Carroll County (also known as the Twin Counties area) child poverty and food insecurity are at or above the national average and many factors discussed on the national level are in play within this local region.
Efforts to curb child poverty have had mixed results as many avenues to help children are hindered in bureaucracy and top heavy administration salaries and inefficient processes for getting aid to the people who are suffering. In the 1960’s under the Lyndon Baine Johnson administration, the United States declared a “war on poverty” and started many government social programs to help combat child poverty and food insecurity. These efforts were met with success as private business and enterprise had utterly failed in helping combat child poverty and food insecurity before the governmental social programs of the 60’s. Yet, as the decades have passed the spike in solving the issues of child poverty has fallen as many businesses found a lucrative market to exploit in terms of “rendering aid” to those in need and taking advantage of the Medicaid Program. Medicaid, an insurance program tailored specifically to help children in need, has seen cost overruns through private contracts with various businesses throughout the system over the years. Many of these businesses claim to help battle child poverty, and they do, yet at a great cost and have larger profit margins on many services and items in the turbulent market of health care. The opportunity for exploitation presented itself, as regulations have been loosened over the years, this exploitation by private business continues to grow. The documentary highlights factors that compounds the problem of child poverty in America. My analysis through this paper, with this film and various local statistics readily available to the public as a catalyst, will point out issues that illustrate the insidious problem of child poverty in the Twin County Area.
I will focus on the cultural and institutional aspect of why children are impoverished that is in play in the Twin Counties. Much of American culture revolves around the notion of “pull yourself up by the boot straps,” independence, and hard work always leads to prosperity. These notions are not fact-based but are entangled in America’s identity, and these notions actually reinforce child poverty by blaming the victim of child poverty rather than addressing the real factors that perpetuate poverty. These notions are a norm in the culture and utilized on various issues beyond child poverty as we see this creep into various issues including mental health problems and sexual assault. Victim blaming is a part of American Exceptionalism and this myth runs deep with many believing that bad things only happen to bad people and thus the victim deserves his or her lot in life. With this mindset in play, poverty is not just ignored but is often seen as a form of punishment of the victim of poverty. This way of thinking lacks empathy and destroys motivation to logically solve a problem. Dehumanization actually occurs in this mode of thought as victim blaming marginalizes the issue as a whole to where victims can either be easily ignored or, worse yet, the victim actually be treated with utter contempt. Hypothetically, a pattern of behavior occurs within the American culture that treats victims of poverty as less than human. This cultural mindset continues food insecurity and child poverty.
Child poverty also falls under institutionalized (systemic) factors that further complicate the issue. These factors include the way governmental policy and agencies (both private and public) deal with the issue of child poverty in allocating money and resources. This process is mired in red tape and a key component to ending poverty is actually monetary. Private and public agencies seldom, if ever, actually give money directly to those in need. Money comes in through tax revenue and donations yet often that money is converted into other forms such as EBT benefits (formerly known as food stamps) which can only be used on food items. This money is locked into a specific expenditure for the client as it can only be used on food items all while the processing fees and administration costs of the program is paid out in cash to employees and vendors of the system(payroll, purchase orders, etc). It can be argued that perhaps the monies involved should be distributed as cash rather than as benefits as people in poverty could then decide how best to use that money. This would streamline administration and vendor costs and make the program more efficient in terms of dollars actually going out to the individuals in need instead of so much of it going to employees and vendors of the system. Many will intuitively site that people in poverty would simply abuse the money yet they have zero data to back that potentially bigoted statement. As the system stands, a cottage industry has been created through the use of private contractors tasked to fight poverty actually profit from a system originally designed to help those in need. The privileged elite actually gain from a system that is supposed to help those in poverty and children who deal with food insecurity, daily. Many school lunch programs have been privatized. Sometimes, this is the only hot meal a child in poverty receives for a day all while a company profits. Some schools systems still utilize their own lunch personnel which is proven to be more efficient in providing meals to children in the region.
Policies handling child poverty and the programs implemented have been constantly tweaked by legislation over the past five decades. These tweaks are often at the request of various business lobbies that have one thing in mind and that is profit. As a result, these tweaks add to the problem of child poverty while pacifying the cultural aspect discussed earlier, of blaming the victim. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 adversely affected single parent households with a disproportionate burden placed on black and Hispanic households. The Act took away key components that once helped combat child poverty. This act further limited food stamp availability. It implemented the “welfare to work” program which meant that people who once took care of minor children were suddenly thrust into poverty wages with part-time work. This act helped businesses more than people as suddenly a resource of cheap labor was put into the market while benefits for the victims of poverty were cut. This act hurt children in poverty by reducing time with a parent or guardian and further marginalized the family as the guardian, even with a job, had less cumulative resources than before the 1996 act.
Virginia is a state that requires many recipients of EBT to work at least 16 hours a week to receive EBT benefits. In the Twin Counties, the jobs available are low paying with Wal-Mart, Guardian (Consolidated Glass) factory, and Magnolia factory being the top paying jobs in the area. And even these jobs pay entry level employees a poverty wage. Other jobs that are typically available to folks on EBT and other programs pay far less and these include retail and restaurant work. The excuse that is often given for the low pay is that these jobs are for kids old enough to work. But this argument falls apart when one simply looks at how many of these businesses are open during school hours. Rhetorically speaking if these jobs are truly for kids then shouldn’t the businesses only operate after school hours? Here is a universal established problem that continues and expands child poverty in America. It also potentially adds to developmental issues as parents are forced from home to work low-paying, hard, stressful jobs (fast food, retail, and factory work are not easy jobs) with no benefits or regular schedule and uncertain hours. As a result, the “Welfare to Work” program destroys stability in the home life. Stability is proven to help in terms of child development and without this component statistics are showing that child poverty is increasing rather than decreasing since this act was implemented. If work offered a living wage rather than a poverty wage then many of the problems with child poverty would be solved at the family level with employers who actually helped society rather than exploiting society and the families within. A living wage would go a long way to eliminating the vast majority of child poverty and many children who suffer in poverty actually have a parent that is employed but employed at the standard poverty level wage paid by far too many employers.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture there are approximately 64 million public school students and approximately 27.9 million of those students participate in free or reduced lunch. The Twin County Region is higher than the national average for students enrolled in the reduced or free lunch program. This statistic showcases child poverty with data available from the Virginia Department of Education. Grayson and Carroll County has one of the highest percentage of students on the free lunch program in the state. According to the Virginia Department of Education in 2017, Grayson County had 1,579 students of which 73% of the student body is enrolled in free or reduced lunch. Carroll County had a student body of 3,539 students, of which 2,174 students are enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. This data only shows the statistics for those enrolled in the program and does not show the numbers of how many children suffer from food insecurity. Many families do not opt into the program due to shame that falls back on the cultural aspect that is in play of blaming the victim.
To reach their potential, children need a stable home, adequate nutrition, and a community. Children in poverty are at a serious disadvantage in achieving that potential. When families struggle to meet even the basic needs a child is at a further disadvantage as parents work menial jobs with hectic schedules that deter from the stability of a family unit. The film showed children going to school hungry. Children are dependent on adequate nutrition for brain development, emotional development, and physical development. Far too many children in the richest country on Earth are going to school hungry and are at a terrible disadvantage. In the Twin Counties the number of children in poverty far exceeds the national average. This is a fight for basic survival and in that fight everything else is secondary. When welfare programs are made to be nearly inaccessible, and pay rates with entry level jobs pay below the poverty line, and work schedules that are a detriment to family units; then we as a society are culturally and institutionally destroying families and hurting children. Mandating a living wage would go a long way to eliminating much of child poverty in America as well as loosening restrictions on safety net programs such as EBT and Medicaid. When we feed our children and care for them we are helping not only an individual but also our society. When we ignore or continue the issue of child poverty then we are actively hurting our society.
- Mohan., T. (Director), Mohan, A., Dr. (Producer), & Sartorio, J., Mohan, A., Dr., & Mohan, T. (Writers). (2011). What Poor Child Is This? Poverty and Americas Children [Motion picture on DVD]. USA: Lathika International Film & Entertainment.
- U.S Department of Health and Human Services. (2016, September 02). The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Retrieved from https://aspe.hhs.gov/report/personal-responsibility-and-work-opportunity-reconciliation-act-1996
- United States Department of Agriculture. (2019, June/July). National School Lunch Program. Retrieved July 12, 2019, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program.aspx
- Virginia Department of Education. (2017, June/July). Program Statistics & Reports. Retrieved July 13, 2019, from http://www.doe.virginia.gov/support/nutrition/statistics/index.shtml