“If my children were hungry,” Ian Smith once said, “I should think I would steal to feed them.” Smith, the prime minister of Zimbabwe when it was a British colony, had good intentions. But how is one supposed to steal food for the millions of children who died at the start of the millennium due to poverty and hunger?
The issue of child poverty is something that rarely makes the headlines, even though the numbers are startling enough to deserve announcement in every major newspaper across the globe. But the problem of starving children is not one restricted to poverty-stricken African countries or the third-world, where they are traditionally relegated. There is a hidden famine in the backyards of the developed Western world. As you read this, little Johnnies and Katies are huddled in rickety apartments from Los Angeles to New York to London. They don’t have warm clothes to ward off the chill winter, and a real meal comes, at most, once a day when their single mother takes them to the neighborhood soup kitchen after she’s worked a full day at minimal pay. Children in North America, the United Kingdom, and other “developed” countries are suffering from deprivation and lack of resources. And it’s a problem that’s not going away.
Barnardo’s, one of the UK’s leading charities tackling this hidden problem, says that one-in-three children in the UK live in poverty (source). That comes out to a stunning 3.8 million children. John Hutton, Secretary of State for Business under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, told the BBC last year that “considerable progress” had been made against child poverty (source). However, statistics show that, over the course of the past year, the number of starving children in the UK has risen by several hundred thousand. If this is progress, we don’t know our heads from our rear ends.
Granted, the British aren’t just sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and discussing the finer points of Mohamed Al Fayed. Prime Minister Brown’s budget last year included £150 million ($292 million USD) for programs specializing at reducing the number of children who go to bed hungry every night (source). The UK’s government also promised to cut the number of impoverished children by 50% by 2010-very similar to the United Nation’s Millennium Development Plan-and has, according to their own reports, moved almost a million children out of poverty (source). Unfortunately, this isn’t enough.
Donald Hirsch, a poverty advisor for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has found that with the UK government’s current financial support, the number of starving children within the UK won’t go down. Instead, by the UK’s self-imposed deadline of 2010, the number of hungry children in the world’s fifth richest country will rise by another million (source).
The UK is not the only rich, Western country with this dirty little secret. Canada and the United States both suffer the same problem, with millions of children living below the poverty line. In the United States, that means 13 million kids don’t have enough money for food, school, adequate housing and clothes (source). And while Canada often likes to think itself slightly superior to its neighbor down south, she doesn’t fare much better. In 1989, Canada’s House of Commons promised to eradicate “poverty among children by the year 2000.” Great goal, but eight years after this deadline, the Canadian Children’s Rights Council reports that one-in-six Canadian children still live in poverty (source).
There is hope. While the numbers are depressing, especially when one realizes that these stories of famine are taking place in some of the world’s wealthiest nations, it is not too late for the governments of North America and Europe to make a difference in their own backyards. Barnardo’s reports that it would require £3.8 billion ($7.4 million USD) in additional governmental spending to meet the UK’s hope of cutting child poverty by 50% (source). This money would be used for boosting crucial economic programs, increasing tax credits, and targeting financial benefits directly at families who live below the poverty line (e.g. helping send children to school). Right now, the largest number of impoverished children are members of single-parent households. With this increase in government spending, this number is expected to drop by 20%. Such a drop is mirrored across the scale (source).
Understandably, £3.8 billion might sound like a lot of money, especially for fiscal conservatives. While it is impossible to put a price tag on the millions of starving children and the countless more who die because of their poverty, we can put this number in perspective. For example, the UK’s city departments paid their employees bonuses totaling £9 billion ($17.5 million USD) last year alone. If we used just half of that money, we could cut childhood poverty by 50% and move dramatically toward completely eradicating it (source).
The Western world’s hidden poverty crisis pulls terribly hard on the heartstrings, but it pulls even harder on the government’s purse strings. The Campaign to End Child Poverty reports that poor children growing up in the United States costs the U.S.’s federal and state governments a collective $500 billion annually source). Even if one ignores the emotional pleas of children shivering in the cold from lack of shelter and clothes, the financial pressure is obvious. Child poverty is an issue that the state needs to deal with, if only for self-serving, economic purposes.
We know what the government needs to do to work toward a viable solution toward child poverty. We’ve also seen how inept government is at moving efficiently and quickly. While it can be extraordinarily frustrating, you don’t have to stand by the sidelines as children suffer. There are several things you can do to advocate for the hidden children in our own neighborhoods and cities who are dying from hunger.
The first and foremost action to take is to educate yourself on the problem. Granted, poverty-especially poverty among children-is an issue that contains numerous socio-economic factors. Yet, the sometimes daunting task of staying informed is one of our prima facie duties. As Carlo Filice argued over a century ago, you cannot make an impact or work to solve a crisis if you are not informed. Visit the web sites of organizations such as the Child Poverty Action Group (http://www.cpag.org.uk/) and End Child Poverty (http://www.endchildpoverty.org.uk/). Educate yourself on the problems facing today’s generation of children!
Those who wish to financially commit to the cause of ending child poverty can take part in the various child sponsorship programs available. One might think that financially supporting one child won’t make a difference, yet each individual child is a story in itself. It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that all these numbers and statistics represent individual children who go to bed every night without dinner, day after day and night after night. Humanitarian organization World Vision operates a well-known and trusted sponsorship program.
If you want a hands-on way to help end child poverty in the developed, Western world, Barnardo’s (http://www.barnardos.org.uk) runs a very active volunteer program that is constantly looking to fill vacancies. As a volunteer, your jobs could include helping a poor family transition into the workforce, childcare, and working at schools. Free The Children (http://www.freethechildren.com) also operates a volunteer program aimed at those who wish to work overseas.
Taking a creative twist on fundraising and building awareness of child poverty, Save The Children (http://www.savethechildren.org) has several programs intended to help you educate others about this enormous issue. For example, you can throw a mock Baby Shower party to fundraise for Save The Children and tell others about the millions of children around the world who are cold and starving.
Finally, keep pressuring your government to take a stand against child poverty, especially starving children in its own cities and backyards. As pressure mounts, governments will be forced to back more progressive measures to end this terrible situation. Hold your MPs and congressmen accountable, and demand that your government support social programs directed at ensuring that every child has food, clothes and housing.
Child poverty is one of the West’s hidden diseases, but it is curable. All it takes is for people to be made aware of the problem, and for our governments to take active measures toward eradicating the problem. The goal of ending child poverty once and for all is not just an ideal, but a reachable goal.