The Loneliness of Poverty

hands-72570_640One of the many ways I was privileged in childhood (though, I didn’t know it then) was with a richness of role models who supported and, later, challenged me.

There was Mrs. McFeely who monitored our elementary playground every school day for years and had a silver whistle that stopped us kids in our tracks when our play got rough, dangerous, or mean. And there were my friends’ moms — Mrs. Nicholson, Mrs. Norris — whose kitchens I knew and in whose back yards we played through long summer afternoons.

About a week ago I came across a Washington Post article about Robert Putnam and his latest book Our Kids: the American Dream in Crisis.

Featured in this piece were the stories of Lola and Sofia. Sisters from a poor area in southeast LA, they grew up “with no parents to speak of.” Their fathers were unknown to them, and both their mother – a heroin addict – and later their grandmother, who had cared for them, died before the girls finished school.

They have lived their young lives devoid of any caring adult presence. No one — not a coach, tutor, minister, counselor, neighbor, aunt, or uncle came in close. Even after-school activities were closed to them, because their grades weren’t high enough. And they feel this loneliness acutely.

As I read about Lola and Sofia, the faces of those adults from my childhood surfaced in my memory – adults outside my family who surrounded me with kindness, creating a circle of caring support and guidance. My sisters, friends, and I thought we were free — and within limits, we were — but in those limits lay our safety. And by opening their homes and lives to us, these adults showed us a path to our futures and invited us into the widening circles of adulthood.

“The privileged kids,” says Putnam, “Don’t just have a wider set of options. They have adults who tailor for them a set of options that excludes all of the bad ones.

Days after first I read Putnam’s story, the hopelessness of the sisters’ lives lingered in my heart – as did the meanness of those adults who acted as gatekeepers to reading clubs and sports teams, when what the girls needed was to be invited into relationship and community.

Who knows what difference a tutor or a mentor might have made in their lives?

“If we can begin to think of these poor kids as our kids,” Putnam says, “We would not sleep for a second before we figured out how to help them.”

Through All Our Children, we encourage people to start the process of figuring out how to give that help. We ask them to connect with others in their congregation and then reach out together to their local school, to build relationships with children like Lola and Sofia. And already we’re seeing through our members that these relationships offer stability, hope, kindness, and some relief from the isolation that poverty is inflicting upon so many children in our country.

I invite you to pause right now and invite the memory of the adults from your childhood circle of care to return to your heart. See their faces and hear their voices. Give thanks for what they gave you — themselves. Give thanks for the person they helped you become.

And ask whether this is the time in your life when you can explore being that adult for a child. Invite others into this conversation — members of your church, or volunteers in your church’s partnership. Gather over a simple pot-luck supper to give thanks, share your stories, and listen together for how God is calling you to take the next step.