Poverty is a strong word – when you hear it, distressing images of starving children in third world countries tends to spring to mind. We don’t often hear it in the context of "our nation."
As an established first world nation most of us naturally assume that we don’t have poverty in our nation. The word "poverty" itself invokes a sense of not just being poor but abjectly poor, struggling to put food on the table. Most people assume this kind of poverty does not exist in the United States. Yet it does and it is our most vulnerable citizens who are suffering. (www.acoss.org.au)
Poverty can be a significant risk factor for poor physical health and mental health. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, children and youth from low-income households are at increased risk for mental health problems. 21% of low-income children and youth, ages 6 through 17, have mental health problems. 57% of these low-income children and youth come from households with incomes at or below the federal poverty level.
The tragic combination of mental illness and poverty also leads to more of our most precious possession, our children, falling into the criminal justice system. A greater proportion of children and youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems have mental health problems than children and youth in the general population. 50% of children and youth in the child welfare system have mental health problems. 67% to 70% of the youth in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Tragically, 75% to 80% of children and youth in need of mental health services do not receive them. (National Center for Children in Poverty)
Children and youth with mental health problems have lower educational achievement. If they are also living in poverty, the results are compounded. Up to 14% of youth in high school with mental health problems receive mainly D’s and F’s, compared to 7% for children with disabilities (note: this is comparing them to children with other disabilities and not children without any disability.)
The rates of suspension and expulsion for students with mental health problems are three times higher than their peers. Up to 44% of them will drop out of school. (National Center for Children in Poverty)
In the state of Alabama, there are 1,130,210 children according to the March 2013 report of the Alabama Children’s Defense Fund. Of these, 306,973 live in poverty. 392,000 children are on food stamps. Poverty and hunger are very real issues in Alabama. This means that mental health should be of concern to us, especially when 75% to 80% of children and youth in need of mental health services do not receive them! (American Journal of Psychiatry)
22% of youth, ages 14 to 17, in the United States, have witnessed a shooting in their lifetime. Research shows that exposure to community violence can impact children’s mental health and development. Considering the number of mass shootings that have occurred in our country over the past fifty years and that in the majority of cases, the shooter had mental health issues, the need for mental health education because painfully clear. In most of the shooting cases, family members knew about the shooter’s mental health problems and failed to get him the help he needed. If help had been sought, perhaps tragedy could have been prevented. When one realizes the amount of coverage such shootings receive in the media; the number of shootings and murders that are reported each week on local television news; and, the number of youth that have witnessed shootings, it makes sense that mental health services should be funded so that schools can address pervasive violence. (White House: NOW-IS-THE-TIME)
So many of our children have needs and we know that no one person or no one church can solve them all. However, we are a connectional church. Together, we can work to meet the needs of many of those children in our state. Together, we can work with other agencies in our area. The United Methodist Women already work and support agencies such as the Children’s Defense Fund whose goal is to bring children out of poverty and make sure all children in our country have food to eat. Jesus said in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (NIV) Children are, indeed, precious in His sight and should be in ours as well. What can we do on behalf of these children? First, we must open our eyes to the injustices being done to these little ones. Secondly, we must pay attention and be bold enough to not just accept the status quo. We must be willing to learn from the poor and the marginalized and act on what they teach us. Thirdly, we must be willing to pray and put actions to our prayers to help these children, realizing, that God is watching.
The Advocacy for Social Justice Blog is produced by the North Alabama Conference Advocacy for Social Justice Team to help people think about justice issues through the lens of faith. It is intended to be a place where United Methodists can listen and learn from each other with mutual respect and understanding. (For the purpose of this blog see the the post “The work of justice is the work of the church”.) Please join the conversation by adding your comment below. If you have an idea for a blog topic or would like to make a submission to the Advocacy for Social Justice Blog please contact the Team Convenor Rev. R.G. Wilson-Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.