Originally published in the American Observer on October 25, 2011.
More than 30,000 kids are impoverished — the majority of them African-American — as the District struggles to solve the problem.
Four afternoons a week, dozens of children gather at a two-story white house with a concrete basketball court serving as a front yard, bars on the bright green door and a chain-link fence wrapped around.
It may not seem like much, but the quaint home in Anacostia is where Hannah Hawkins serves as many as 80 kids a hot, home-cooked meal, as well as providing them with an after-school program that includes tutoring, crochet, African dance and computer lessons.
“What motivates me is what I see in the eyes of these children,” Hawkins said. “I don’t camouflage it; I don’t walk past it because you never know who you’re walking by.”
Hawkins started Children of Mine Youth Center almost 30 years ago to provide services to needy children in the District and surrounding area. With the onset of the recession and the continued rise of child poverty, demands for her services have increased more than 50 percent, Hawkins said.
D.C.’s poverty rate for children under 18 is now at 30.4 percent — that’s more than 30,500 kids — and a jump from 22 percent in 2007 before the recession.
Child poverty in the District is higher than the national average and second only to Mississippi. There are also very wide disparities among race. The rate for white children in poverty is around 7 percent; Hispanic children are around 20 percent. But for black children in D.C., the poverty rate is 43 percent — up from 34 percent in 2008.
Some of those kids come to Children of Mine weekly. As more children fill up the seats around Hawkins’ dinner table, providing for them gets harder because she receives no government funding, donations are minimal, and there are few volunteers.
On top of securing food, preparing daily meals and even helping feed college students and homeless adults in the area, every day Hawkins has to “go out and lobby with my mouth.” With no staff and only a few unpaid helpers, Hawkins often loses out on grants to larger nonprofits with paid staffs of expert lobbyists and grant writers.
“Enough is not being done. It’s worse now than when I started,” Hawkins said. “There are times when I leave here at night and feel like I’m frozen in time, I’m just so tired. There should not be hungry children in these United States.”
Health implications dire
Even with nonprofits like Children of Mine, the effects of poverty on children can be both physical and emotional and last long into life.
“The impact of living in poverty on opportunity is extreme. Children who are poor have significantly worse health outcomes than middle class children,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center, which advocates for anti-poverty policies in the District.
Children in poverty are more likely to be obese, have uncontrolled asthma and face mental health problems, which their parents often can’t afford to treat, Sandalow said.
“We have an extremely poor children’s mental health system. If you are a child living in a low-income community and see domestic violence or street violence or a school that is highly dysfunctional, you are exposed to a level of trauma that makes it hard for a child to function,” she said.
Hunger all too common
Poverty is often the root of many other issues aside from health problems including hunger, which has been shown to lead to developmental impairments and poor performance in school.
“The problem is that income poverty is associated with a lot of other parent and community and family life circumstances that are damaging to children’s health and development. The implications for children are very serious.” said Sheila Smith, director of early childhood for the National Center for Children in Poverty.
According to Feeding America, a large hunger-relief nonprofit, one in three children in the District, higher than any other state, didn’t have enough regular access to nutritious food in 2009. The nonprofit says poverty is the main cause of food insecurity, or the availability of food and one’s access to it.
Currently, more than 23 percent of the D.C. population uses food stamps — higher than any other state in the country. A report by Feeding America states that nearly half of those participants are children.
Sandalow said she believes that even when people have access to food stamps and other nutrition programs, often the cost of transportation and lack of nearby stores impairs people’s abilities to buy nutritious food, a concept known as food deserts.
“Many, many, many of the children that we serve eat breakfast and lunch at school and it is where they are guaranteed to get a nutritious meal. It is not because their parents are neglecting them. It is expensive to get nutritious food; it is hard to get to stores,” Sandalow said.
Program cuts worry experts
Nutrition programs, including food stamps and free school breakfast and lunch, may soon be facing cuts. In November, the congressional supercommittee is expected to present a plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion, a small part of which might come from food programs.
On Oct. 17, heads of the Senate and House agriculture committees, which oversee federal nutrition programs, recommended the committee cut no more than $23 billion from agriculture and nutrition funding and promised to release a more specific outline by Nov. 1.
“These programs are a crucial part of the safety net, and it’s very scary to hear some politicians talk about cutting back on them,” said Curtis Skinner, director of family economic security at the National Center for Children in Poverty.
“These programs really played a role in keeping the families going in the recession and now. I think it’s extremely important to fund them,” Skinner said.
Cuts to the programs may also come next year. As the House and Senate agriculture committees prepare to write the 2012 farm bill, some legislators have called for reducing funding for nutrition programs — which typically make up about two-thirds of the agriculture legislation.
“It seems to me foolish to cut something as basic as nutrition programs. I think people forget that children are not responsible for their own poverty,” Sandalow said.