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Breaking the Cycle in Our Backyard: U.S. Programs

US Programs

“We sleep in the back of our pickup truck — my brother, my sister, my mom and dad and me.” — boy, age 11, Great Plains Region

Americans tend to be proud of their place among the top 25 wealthiest countries in the world. Less well known, though, is that among that group, the United States is number 1 in the percentage of its children living in poverty.

Of the 100 poorest counties nationwide, 95 are rural, and child poverty rates there range as high as 40 to 70 percent. Having worked with children in the U.S. since 1952, ChildFund today partners with 13 community-based organizations in several of those counties to serve nearly 12,000 children in North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Texas.

The communities where we work are predominantly minority — African-American, Native American and Hispanic. Their poverty traces to ingrained systems of oppression and exploitation, whether slavery, forced relocation or exploitative migrant labor.  

“My baby was born too early. She was very small and stayed in the hospital for a long time. I am very scared to be a parent.” — girl, age 14, Great Plains Region

Unemployment is as high as 85 percent in some of these communities. Housing is sub-par, and alcoholism and domestic violence are widespread. With lack of support at home, children struggle with school and with self-esteem. School dropout rates top 50 percent. Young people often take refuge in drugs, alcohol or other risky behaviors. More girls get pregnant, and at younger ages. More young people end up incarcerated. The generational cycle of poverty grinds on.

For populations whose poverty is so pervasive and ingrained, dependence on government aid becomes a fallback, which often leads to apathy or, at least, hesitation about trying to improve the status quo. “Historically, many communities have been pushed by a legacy of discrimination and exclusion into systems of government dependence,” says Rukhsana Ayyub, ChildFund’s national director for U.S. Programs, citing Medicaid and food stamps as examples. “No one denies that those were much needed, but the dependence also takes away the community’s initiative. People in the communities where we work have said that they want to come out of that.”

“We want to help out — do things like planting trees, helping the elderly and the community … but grownups think that youth are all the same and they don’t listen to us.” — a youth, Mississippi

This desire to participate in their communities’ growth is a sentiment that pervaded the recent community consultations ChildFund held through its U.S. affiliates. “Communities want to take an active role in what happens in their lives and their communities,” says Ayyub. “We are trying to help them build active roles.”

Because youth engagement is a central focus in ChildFund’s work, children and youth are included in community consultations. They are, after all, the most direct source of information about their own experiences of poverty. From them we know that one thing that arises throughout deprived areas in the U.S. (and, as it happens, the world) is that young people understand that they are too often seen as a problem rather than as a resource. It’s a message that becomes true if it is repeated enough.  

“The whole system is set up in a way that is punitive and tells youth, ‘You are bad and a problem,’ rather than an asset for this community,” Ayyub says. “But they want to succeed. They say, ‘I want to do good in school, and I want to make my mom proud of me.’”

So, rather than simply providing services — giving young people bicycles, for example — ChildFund adds value by engaging beneficiaries from different angles: training the youth on bicycle maintenance as well as healthy exercise and diet. “They see it as something they got out of participation,” says Ayyub. “They learn about taking care of their own things.”

She describes a scene in a Mississippi community center where a small new library has been set up. “Youth come in and read to the younger ones,” she says. “It’s not a giveaway; it’s a way of engaging the community. If you just give books, you don’t know if they are read or not.” Similar programs are offered in ChildFund’s south Texas communities.

Because poverty’s effects also differ across geography and ethnicity, ChildFund adapts its work to the needs of each area. Among Native American populations, for example, the teen suicide rate is twice the national average, so suicide prevention is a strong focus of ChildFund’s work in the Great Plains. Cultural restoration programs aim to reinforce historical Native American values of strength, tradition and family. In Mississippi, where the rate of child obesity is 44 percent — the highest nationwide — nutrition initiatives are key.

The recent news from the Census Bureau, that 35.9 million people now live below the poverty line in America, including 12.9 million children (one in five nationwide), shocked many. It also served to draw many ChildFund supporters’ attention toward the plight of children right here in the U.S. We welcome the recent uptick in requests for child sponsorship in the U.S.

"Any letter I received from my sponsor, I was really thankful for it. I never really cared if it was money or clothes," says a 19-year-old former sponsored child from Texas. "What mattered was that my sponsor remembered by writing me a simple letter."

To sponsor a child in the U.S., please visit Sponsorship in the U.S. is $35 per month.