Poverty sucks the hope, vision, self-worth, motivation, peace, and opportunity right out of a child’s life. It is a destructive force that cannot be fully comprehended in an occasional visit to a poverty filled neighborhood or in a two minute spotlight on the news. The impact poverty has, the toll it takes, and what is needed to change the trajectory of a child’s future is more fully understood over time as you observe the same lives at different ages and stages. It is a life changing journey of revelation, if you can keep from being consumed by the darkness.
When I stepped into a world where elementary and middle school aged boys were caught up in the gang life of the 1990’s, and seemed trapped in generational poverty, I was unprepared for how their lives swirled with dysfunction and chaos. It was survival mode 24/7 for children who, at age 11, were skilled at how to hustle for pocket change, how to navigate dark streets alone at night, and how to roll a joint. They knew where to scavenge for food. They had experienced turf wars and drive-by shootings. They knew how to read (and interpret) gang graffiti, but couldn’t read a third grade children’s book.
At age 15, they didn’t know how to order off of a menu in a sit-down restaurant or how to take the correct elevator in a high-rise office building. They had no exposure to that world. They didn’t know anyone who had gone to college (teachers aside); most of the people they knew never even graduated from high school. The kids were smart, but poverty and gang life had a way of scrambling family priorities, and school attendance was often the loser.
Worst of all, they were quite sure that the “nachos” with fake cheese which they consumed daily from the nearby convenience store qualified as food and were a healthy meal.
After decades of living in the midst of the poor, I am still struck by the enormity of poverty’s reach – tentacles that wrap around a life and deprive it of basic life skills, social awareness, and ability to navigate society. But I am also struck by how much God loves them, how He manifests Himself among them, and the lengths to which He will go to give hope to the hopeless.
I am still amazed, and motivated, by the way unconditional love and fierce commitment can bring relief to a child and give them a sense of worth.
Poverty in our neighborhood looks a little different on the outside in 2017 than it did in 1990 – that is a whole story in itself – but the devastation imprinted on the soul of a child living in generational poverty remains the same. Poverty sucks.