My mother, Pat, grew up during the dustbowl depression and to say her family was poor would be an understatement. Still, you wouldn’t know it hearing her talk about it. Her family played games, sang songs, recited poetry and my mom had an exceptional teacher who lit her up when it came to learning.
My mom was the only one in her family to graduate from college and she put herself through school working in the cafeteria. She went on to lead a very adventurous and she would say exceptional life.
Growing up in West Virginia, I witnessed a different kind of poverty — a more difficult kind of poverty. It was a more dyed-in-the-wool, resigned-to-helplessness that permeated the forgotten communities in the mountains.
It was thinking about this gap between my mother’s hopeful, forward-looking childhood and the quiet acceptance I saw in kids a town or two away from mine that led me to my work with Save The Children’s U.S. Programs.
Children in this country start kindergarten when they are five- or six-years-old. My daughters don?t really understand this yet, but they’ve already won.
Here is why: kids growing up in poverty have heard, by the time they turn four, 30 million fewer words than my kids.
They are developmentally 18 months behind their middle class counterparts.
If you think like a two and a half year old when you’re four, imagine where you are when you start kindergarten. It?s too late; we?ve already lost them.
A few months ago, I visited one of Save the Children’s sites in Yucca Valley, California, one of nearly 200 rural and often forgotten communities that we serve across the southwest and southeast, many of which are very much places like the mountains of West Virginia. Yucca, though, is quite different — it’s a sparse, desert community.
The poverty rate for infants and toddlers in Yucca is double the rate in the rest of California.
I visited the home of 11-month-old Matthew, whose young parents earn well below the national poverty threshold of $22,000 per year. They live in a small home, isolated from other families. I read to Matthew alongside one of Save the Children’s home visit coordinators.
When Matthew gets older, he will take part in our programs at Yucca Elementary, where our literacy programs help kids in Kindergarten through 6th grade.
As much as anything, I was drawn to this organization because it’s effective for the 80,000 kids that we serve.
Eighty-six percent of at-risk toddlers in our early childhood development program scored at or above national average on literacy and language tests.
Twice the number of children participating in our literacy program read at grade level by the end of the year.
Nearly 13,000 children, many of whom are affected by the childhood obesity epidemic, receive a healthy snack and average 30 minutes of additional physical activity each day.
Still, we serve a small number of the nearly one in four kids who lives in poverty in the United States today.
For three years, I have been fighting with the Save the Children team in Washington and in the states for deeper investments in early childhood education, which, like for Matthew, is the key to a lifetime of learning, success and a path out of poverty.
Today, only three out of five kids eligible for preschool are enrolled in a private school or a public program like Head Start.
President Obama last year already committed $500 million for deeper investments in early childhood education.
That was an incredible win but everyone acknowledges it’s not quite enough to turn the tide.
My hope is that all of us could find a role — even a small one — to play in helping to make change. That could mean writing your Congresspeople, volunteering or just taking a half an hour to talk to the kids in your life about what it means to live in poverty. They need to understand inequality but know that they can play a role in making change.
I’m thrilled that my colleague in this work, Julianne Moore, is leading Save the Children’s Valentine’s Day campaign, making this holiday about sharing and love for kids across the country, not just across the classroom. What a fabulous way for all of us to help raise funds and awareness.
Our shared goal is this: kids never having to experience different kinds of poverty in this country — neither the more hopeful kind my mom experienced nor the kind the kids in West Virginia and Yucca face.
Let’s make nearly one in four become none in four.