Last year as we set up our Nativity set, our then two-year-old daughter asked why so many of the figures were kneeling. Plopping baby Jesus in the manger, she quickly answered her own question, "Oh. To better see God." This year we have a newborn son in our home. And as we raid the rafters for the crèche and unwrap Christmas decorations, I think again about kneeling at the cradle. It is a very practical posture. Anyone who has ever fed, burped, patted and rocked an infant to sleep knows the drill. How do you make the transfer without waking the babe? To move the baby from your lap to his bed you have to slowly, gently kneel before the cradle, move your precious bundle and pray for a miracle, that the babe will stay asleep unperturbed and the house will be at peace. These days I spend a lot of time kneeling before the cradle.
It is also a practical posture for our public policy. We ought to kneel before the cradle, respecting and protecting sacred, fragile life.
How are we doing in this regard within the United States? As anyone who has ever worked in a parish soup kitchen can attest, there are people starving in the land of plenty. We know the statistics: 1 in 6 children in the United States lives in poverty; the number of poor has been increasing every year since 2000, according to the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference Catholic Campaign for Human Development (www.povertyusa.org). Child mortality has also been increasing every year since 2000, and is now at the level of Malaysia. The real numbers are probably much worse, since the homeless and immigrants tend not to be counted, and the federal poverty rate is not the real poverty rate. The federal government defines poverty as an income of $16,000 a year for a family of three, and $19,000 for a family of four, but most research shows that it takes at least twice that amount to cover a family’s basic expenses. By this more accurate estimate, 30 percent of Americans live in poverty. Yet even by the government’s too-low numbers, the total number of Americans living in extreme poverty has reached the highest ever recorded since data were first available in 1975.
Our nation’s capital leads the country in child poverty. A shocking 30 percent of children living in the District of Columbia are poor, even by the rosy government numbers. Worse, 19 percent of the children in the district, or one in five, live in extreme poverty, on less than half the federal poverty level (in households that earn less than $8,045 for a family of three and $9,675 for a family of four). After D.C., the highest rates of both child poverty and extreme child poverty are in the South, with Louisiana leading the pack, as it did even before Hurricane Katrina.
Race matters for child poverty: 33 percent of African-American children are poor, 29 percent of Latino children are poor, while only 10 percent of white children are poor. Black babies in Washington, D.C., have a higher infant-death rate than in poor areas of India, according to the U.N., and black children throughout the United States are twice as likely to die before their first birthday than are white children. Citizenship also matters: 26 percent of the children of immigrants are poor. Younger children, under 6, are more likely to be poor. And parents matter: 53 percent of children under six living in single-female homes are poor.
Most of these families are working poor, because the minimum wage is not a living wage. Two-thirds of all poor families with children have at least one member working. Working full time at the minimum wage for a year earns a single parent of two only $10,712 before taxes, more than $4,000 below the federal poverty level.
Poverty is a terrible gift we give our children. Ten million poor children are in failing schools, greatly reducing their chances of ever climbing out of poverty. According to the World Bank, new evidence from the United States (where the myth of equal opportunity is strong) finds high levels of persistence of socioeconomic status across generations: recent estimates suggest that it would take five generations for a family that earned half the national average income to reach the average. Immobility is particularly pronounced for low-income African Americans.
The situation is far worse abroad, where more than a billion people (most of them children) live below the international poverty line of less than a dollar a day. A child dies every five seconds of hunger or hunger-related diseases. In the developing world 143 million children, or one in 13, have lost one or both parents. There are more than 12 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa alone; 171 million children work in dangerous conditions; tens of millions of children live in the streets; 8.5 million children work in slave labor conditions; two million children work in the sex trade. Children born into poverty stay poor. Africans are lucky to receive five years of (low quality) education, but most girls in Africa receive almost none.
These numbers are not an accident; they are a choice. We do not put poor children first in our public policies. As we kneel before the cradle of our Christmas crèches, we act as if a poor child was important. In public policy, we act as if children are invisible or disposable. If we truly saw God in poor children, if we had a kneel before the cradle attitude in the public sphere, public policy and these daunting numbers would change.