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Dust Bowl Redux: 21st Century Poverty Festers


“Dylan,” the dirty-blonde 2-year-old, ran barefoot through the fine silt that passed for the Dust Bowl look-alike front yard. He’s one of the “lucky” ones, a kid who gets to go to daycare as his beleaguered parents struggle to make ends meet with their minimum wage, less-than-fulltime WalMart paychecks. And he’s not homeless, like over 1.6 million of the children in this land.

Seeing what passes for life out here in the pre-Western countryside, it’s obvious that generations of American elected officials have given up on these godforsaken lands and the people who live here. I dare anyone to argue otherwise. This Great Depression era, bedraggled red brick Head Start facility (photo), and I use “facility” loosely, attempts to serve low-income toddlers from this nameless Oklahoma town. As Head Start grapples with constantly depleted resources and growing eligible populations (3-5 year old children in poverty), they come under fire for being too little, too late.

As Pat LaMarche and I crossed the backroads of bleak, dreary, grim and lifeless Oklahoma, into the Panhandle of Texas, I couldn’t help but believe we’re growing the next generation of impoverished adults. 

Poverty has been around since the beginning of time, yeah. But, in this age of enlightenment that we’re supposed to be wallowing in, you’d think we’d shift gears where we have been dragging—to ensure our little ones have a fighting chance to succeed. But it appears that the poorer these “littlest nomads” are, the less we care.

One of my favorite singers, Paul Simon, weighed in on how we treat our nation’s kids. He hopefully got President Obama’s attention, whose comments (regarding children’s wellbeing) following the Sandy Hook massacre contended, "It's our first job. If we don't get it right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged…."Not sure we're on a good path to set that standard, thanks to the swinging axe of a budget-deficit-demented Congress.

Paul Simon chided the Prez: “We couldn't agree more. But, getting it right will require a real commitment of effort and resources to make sure that all of our children are not only safe from horrific violence, but also able to grow and thrive to their full potential.” 

Getting it right. Yeah, we’re far from that. Our nation stands hopelessly by as children’s poverty rate skyrockets. Perennial children’s advocate, Marian Wright Edelman recently commented on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, “If the foundation of your house is crumbling, you don’t say you can’t afford to fix it,” said Edelman, dissatisfied with the way child poverty has been addressed in this country. “It’s disgraceful that we let children be the poorest group of Americans.”

Having suppressed my gag reflex at the sordid conditions in the Ft. Smith, AR homeless camp during our tour the other day, I knew I couldn’t condemn these men and women for their repugnant lifestyles. They all once were children. Some experienced the tough things that happen to kids along the way. Some bounced around as homeless kids with or without parents. Some served in the military for an ungrateful nation. Some were turned away as they sought treatment for mental health and/or addictions. Some were cast aside for learning disabilities that vexed beleaguered educators. But they’re all people, just like you and me.

We’re honored to be on this tour to chronicle the conditions of millions of invisible, forgotten and desperately homeless babies, toddlers, children, youth, women and men who apparently don’t count enough in the distracted minds of our leaders. Our Babes of Wrath tour, which you can follow on our EPIC Journey Facebook page, will give voice and visibility. HEAR US Inc., my nonprofit, sponsored this tour to, well, inspire the wrath that needs to fuel a compassion epidemic.

We can continue our tumble into the Great Depression II conditions, or smarten up and realize caring for our little ones is the one sure investment that will pay off for all of us. The first step in addressing a problem is to admit we have one. With your help—by supporting our tour, sharing our posts, commenting on our observations—we’ll at least make a few more people aware of the unreported issue of poverty and homelessness. That will make our Babes of Wrath tour worthwhile. I can assure you, we're not doing this for fun.