For several decades, American children learned to read from primers that starred Dick and Jane, along with baby Sally, and Mother and Father, of course, and Spot the dog, and Puff the cat, and Tim the stuffed bear. They lived in a house with a wooden fence around it.
In the 1960s, consciousness arose that not all children are white, and textbooks changed. As social conventions evolved, fewer kids grew up in homes equipped with two parents. Assumptions about family situations could no longer be made. In class discussions and activities, teachers learned to tread carefully.
Now, we are in an era when it cannot even be taken for granted that a child sleeps beneath a roof. In the best-case scenario, home might be a church shelter, or a van. We are looking at a brand-new report (PDF format) from Child Trends, authored by Marci McCoy-Roth, Bonnie B. Mackintosh and David Murphey, and titled “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children.”
It is worth pausing for a moment to remember the words of this traditional bedtime nursery song:
Rockabye baby, in the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle, and all.
The lyrics are strange indeed, considering that the purpose of a lullaby is to comfort a child into sleep. For too many children, the words are prophetic. The report says:
The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that more than 1.6 million children — or one in 45 children — were homeless annually in America between 2006 and 2010. It is estimated that 40 percent of homeless children, or roughly 640,000 over that timeframe, were under the age of six… Some homeless families are not using shelter programs. The HUD report found that approximately 21 percent were living in places not intended for housing (e.g., in public spaces, cars, etc.).
Unlike Dick and Jane of yore, a homeless child is likely to have only one parent, and that one is almost certainly the mother. According to the report:
… [F]amilies currently represent a much larger percentage of the shelter population than ever before. Similar to other families living in poverty, the typical homeless family is headed by a young, single woman in her 20s, with limited education (often less than a high school degree), with two children (one or both under the age of 6 years old).
Forget about Spot; a homeless child’s acquaintance with the animal kingdom is more likely to include bedbugs and rats. If she or he owns a teddy bear, it came from the annual fire department holiday toy drive or from a dumpster out back of a strip mall.
And the lack of pets and playthings is the least of their worries. The child experiencing homelessness is more likely to suffer from hunger than the housed counterpart. Homeless kids have more health problems and less access to doctors. It’s difficult for the youngest to get into preschool, and even if they can, the parents lack transportation to take them there.
Moving is traumatic in and of itself. Changing schools is traumatic in and of itself. A homeless child is likely to do both, several times, within the course of a year. This is known, in the social sciences trade, as “turbulence” and it’s not good. Turbulence leads to emotional and behavioral problems, and sometimes those problems are exacerbated by separation from parents and siblings, or even cause such separations to take place.
The report mentions foster care as a possibility. The times, they are a-changin’, and nobody keeps up with them better than Eric Sheptock, known as the Homeless Homeless Advocate.
After President Obama’s visit to Washington, D.C.’s biggest shelter, whose kitchen feeds 5,000 people every day, Sheptock not only reviewed the event, but listed some ways in which the President has both helped and failed the homeless. Perhaps Sheptock is unduly pessimistic, but based on recent occurrences, he foresees the danger of legislation that would mandate the removal of children from the custody of homeless adults:
Any parent who is homeless with a child will have the child taken away and put up for adoption. One might think that the government would take the money that it spends on adoption and put that toward housing the biological parent and their child(ren). But they’d much rather break-up families. Sad.
House the Homeless has said basically the same thing:
How insane can it get? When kids are taken away and put into foster care, somebody has to be paid for taking care of them. As long as the sum is going to be paid out anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to just pay that mother the same amount, to take care of her own kids?
Well, it’s one way to bring down the statistics. Children in foster care are not technically considered homeless, so it looks better on paper. Who cares if they are removed from families for no better reason than economic distress that could be relieved in better ways? The Child Trends report also notes that at least a quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence, and adds:
According to reports by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, more than 80 percent of mothers with children experiencing homelessness have previously experienced domestic violence, and their children are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems.
Richard R. Troxell points to an important source of information on the critical connection between violence and economics, a government study titled “When Violence Hits Home: How Economics and Neighborhood Play a Role.” Created under the auspices of John Ashcroft, it says:
Women living in households with high incomes experienced less violence at the hands of their intimate partners than did women whose households were less financially secure. The results showed a very consistent pattern: As the ratio of household income to needs goes up, the likelihood of violence goes down.
In other words, although domestic violence is found at every economic stratum and in every kind of home, it tends to show up more often when money is tight. It’s stressful when the bills are overdue. Sometimes the stress leads to drinking, which means even more expenditure and, often, to violence.
Sometimes there is a complicated family dynamic in which, even if the woman is capable of bringing some income, the traditionally minded man refuses to allow it and tension springs from that. Sometimes the woman works and makes a higher salary, and the man has to reclaim superiority, in his own mind, by knocking her around.
Often, there just plain isn’t enough of anything, and tempers get short. Frustration grows, and to a man in a financial mess, it can seem like someone must be to blame, and that someone has to pay the price. One of the common variations of domestic violence as practiced by males is to refrain from hitting the kids, but the wife comes in for even more abuse, sacrificing herself to protect the kids. Even children who were never directly hurt suffer from long-term emotional scarring, as we are told by child development professionals. Witnessing violence of one parent against the other can be as traumatic as direct victimization.
The Ashcroft study is found at a government site of the National Institute of Justice, and can also be located via the Universal Living Wage page, by clicking on the “What’s New” button and scrolling to November 22, 2007. This method is more useful, because a person can also become acquainted with the history of the thought and the public events behind the development of the Universal Living Wage.
Source: “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children,” ChildTrends.org, Feb. 2012
Source: “Obama Fails To Address Homeless Crisis While at Kitchen,” Tick Tock Sheptock, 09/15/11
Image (modified) by Valerie Everett, used under its Creative Commons license.