Hard Times

Amid the welter of accusation and recrimination that marks not only our national politics but the Catholic blogosphere, it’s easy to forget that millions of American kids are hurting. Schools are an important venue for collecting data on child and family homelessness because studies have shown that up to 87% of homeless families manage to keep their kids enrolled. In my own little seaside town  of 25,000, our school department just announced that there are 200 homeless children among us.  Some live in cars and tents in a local state park. Some are sleeping on couches in friends’ apartments or in temporary housing provided by our local homeless shelter. Some live with their families in the now deserted tourist motels that dot the highway outside of town. Recently, one of these motels burned to the ground. No one was killed, thank God, but several families – including about 25 children – lost what little they had. There was a brief flurry of local press coverage after the fire, complete with combox clucking about how terrible it all is, but now these kids have dissolved once more into the white noise of daily life. It’s mind over matter: if we put them out of our minds they won’t really matter. And anyway, this is America. It’s not like anyone is starving, right?

A recent study by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) revealed that the number of homeless children enrolled in school had exploded by 41% between 2006 and 2009 to almost 1 million. I couldn’t find later statistics than those, but with the avalanche of foreclosures and unemployment that continues to roll over the American economy it’s a good bet that the numbers were higher in 2011, and will be higher still in 2012. Certainly that’s the sense at the WARM Center homeless shelter and soup kitchen, where I serve as a board member, We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of families with children coming for meals or looking for shelter. Another group in our town started something called The Supper Table, where free family-style meals are served in a restaurant setting every Monday evening. They’ve averaged nearly 100 kids a week. I’m also involved in the St. Vincent DePaul conference in my parish. A few years ago most of our clients were the hardcore indigent, many mentally ill or dealing with substance abuse problems. Today, the majority of our cases are the working poor, formerly middle class families ravaged by unemployment, underemployment, foreclosure, and medical bills.  They’ve lost homes, jobs, cars, self-respect and in some cases, hope. Unaccustomed to accessing social services, they frequently languish while the debts climb higher and their options grow fewer. This is the feeder population for homelessness in the New America, and there are lots and lots of kids.

Kids get the bill for all the failures of adults. Mom and dad get divorced? The kids pay. The president decides to send dad overseas again? The kids pay. Financial institutions, aided by their retainers in government, turn into criminal cartels? The kids pay. The landlord has to meet his monthly nut? The kids pay. Kids always get the bill. Now, I know that a misanthrope like Rush Limbaugh ridicules talk about “the chirren,”  but he’s wrong. He hasn’t knocked on the steamed up windows of a rusting Chevrolet, where a family of four is settling down for the evening. He hasn’t seen the small, dark eyes staring back at him, fearful, confused, hopeful. He hasn’t heard the young teenaged girl weeping from embarrassment while her little brother asks a stranger for food.  If we talk about nothing else in the next year, we should talk about the children.


Apropos of the reflection above, here’s a video of the song “Hard Times Come Again No More,” written by Stephen Foster (Oh! Susanna) in 1854, and sung here by Mavis Staples.

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  • Rick

    Great article. What a terrible travesty with regard to the children in our very own backyard. To me, it is directly related to the destruction of the family. Why? The economy? Doesn’t help, that’s for sure. So why?
    We as a nation took a hard left back in the 60’s and 70’s. We’ve lost our moral compass and the family structure had paid the price; children, as you say the, ultimate fall guy. It’s inevitable. We’ve handed the keys of our responsibility over to govt, allowing a nanny state mentality. Of course we see how that is working for us. The church has in the past been the caretaker of the downtrodden, needy and suffering of our society. But because govt has usurped, with our permission, God’s edict, we are now, and will continue to pay a severe price. God help us.
    I want to take issue with your characterization of RL. I’m reckoning you want me to know you are a liberal person at heart as the attack, unwarranted, unfounded and unfair. I’m sorry your offended by his use the word chirren.IMO, he’s not being mean-spirited but only a bit if fun, like when he always says ‘the Reverend Jesse Jackson’ in that voice that sounds, to the uninitiated, a disrespectful tone but actually is a characterization of his friend, WM F Buckley’s manner of speaking.
    I so appreciate your bringing this issue to light. But I feel putting any blame on RL is a misguided as those partaking in the OWS. I think RL, whether or not he helps kids, is addressing helping to find the solutions to the greater (not to say children’s woes are not greater) problem which are systemic; it’s the age old battle of liberalism vs conservatism, the latter, which includes and would, if allowed to flourish, the church, taking back her role as the guardian and help meet to the underprivileged. I believe conservatism fosters true compassion and holds the key to help MOST Americans, especially kids. As Jesus said, the poor will always be among us but the govt doesn’t have the mandate or, as we see from the data, the success record to truly help the poor. It is the job of the church of Jesus Christ.
    Keep up the good work. Blessings.

    • Rick, you say that “it is the job of the church of Jesus Christ” to help the poor, not the government. It’s often overlooked that in the last time of prolonged and systemic economic woe in our country, the Great Depression, the government took over “relief” from the churches because the churches, being overwhelmed, asked it to.

      How exactly should the church “truly help the poor”? What would that look like? How would it be carried out in practice?

      And, since the church is made up of the community of believers, what would you say is the responsibility of the individual believer toward the poor in his midst?

      Also, just out of curiosity, what is Rush Limbaugh doing, as you put it, to “[help] find the solutions”?

    • Another thing is that homeless children are the casualties of an economy in which even fully-employed unskilled workers can’t make a living wage. In what way is this related to the “hard left turn” of the 1960s and 70s?

    • Mark Gordon

      Right. Rick, thank you for the comment. I hope you won’t be offended by the following comments, but they really must be made.

      • First, the right-wing buzzwords you deploy (nanny state, hard left) may be dispositive for graduates of the Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies, but they are really meaningless to the rest of us. The genius of Rush Limbaugh is that he has taken millions of radio listeners and convinced them that a.) he knows what he’s talking about; and b.) that by listening to him they’re getting an education of some sort. He accomplishes this by creating an easy-to-grasp narrative in which some characters wear the black hats (liberals) and some wear the white hats (so-called “conservatives’). Your comment that “it’s the age old battle of liberalism vs. conservatism” is a perfect encapsulation of that narrative, and we’re supposed to understand immediately that “liberal” and “conservative” are stand-ins for “evil” and “good.” Such is the Kabuki theater of the mind that is at the heart of Limbaugh’s success. The irony is that he has little in common with traditional American conservatism.
      • Second, it will probably surprise you that the American middle class as we know it was largely a creation of the US Government. After World War II, the GI Bill enabled millions of returning veterans to get college educations, creating a professional and managerial class that would endure for decades. Millions of those former troops also bought homes with mortages secured by the Veteran’s Administration (VA). Millions of other Americans bought homes with help from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Farmers Home Adminisitration (FmHA). It was in the 1950’s that unionization of the American work force reached its zenith. In 1956, 25% of all workers and 33% of all wage-earners were unionized. Those unions negotiated decent salaries and benefits that allowed the average family to live on one income in their own home. It is no accident that during this period in American history we had both robust growth in the domestic economy and shrinking gaps in income inequality. Government spending as a percentage of GDP settled in at around 25 to 32% during these years and didn’t rise again until the mid-1980’s.
      • Contrast that to the past 30 years, during which the ideology favored by Rush Limbaugh has been ascendant. Deregulation of the financial industry led to easy credit, the accumulation of massive private debt, and a series of speculative bubbles that have serially wiped out middle class assets. Changes in the regulation of manufacturers, combined with an ideology of free trade, resulted in the wholesale outsourcing of millions of American jobs. Dramatically higher defense pending, combined with tax cuts, led to huge government deficits. The percentage of government spending as a percentage of GDP rose during Reagan’s tenure to the mid-30s and stayed there, eventually hitting 42% during the last budget year begun under George W. Bush. Meanwhile, union participation has plummeted and income inequality is skyrocketing. The years from 1980 to 2008 were one long experiment with the ideology promoted by Rush Limbaugh, the same ideology you say “holds the key to help most Americans.” Really? Do you really think that doing away with the minimum wage, or Medicare, or privatizing Social Security, or helping the rich get richer at the expense of the middle class is going to “help most Americans?”
  • Not to be cynical, but what makes such amoral policy possible — and acceptable — is that children can’t vote.

  • We as a nation took a hard left back in the 60′s and 70′s. We’ve lost our moral compass and the family structure had paid the price; children, as you say the, ultimate fall guy. It’s inevitable.

    This storyline makes it impossible to locate and address the essential problems that we face as a nation, but more importantly, as a civilization. A society doesn’t lose its moral compass in a decade. It takes centuries to do that. Civilization lost its moral compass during the Enlightenment, when man ceased to look for knowledge of meaning and began to look only for knowledge of utility. Man ceased to look for answers from God’s creation, and began to look for answers in Man’s creation. It wasn’t long before Industrialism was born. Industrialism gave proof that Man was more powerful (and moral) than God.

    Our civilization is at its apex. The restructuring of family according to man’s imagination isn’t an aberration or a mistake. The attack on the very nature of human nature and human society began long ago, and will continue until this civilization either repents or collapses.

    I wouldn’t bet on the former.