What Democrats and Republicans Are Missing About Poor Kids in the U.S. | Opinion

Back in March 2021, President Biden along with congressional Democrats had a plan for dealing with childhood poverty in America. They restructured the child tax credit so parents got a monthly check—up to $3,600 a year per child. It was heralded as an end to child poverty—and then it expired. The monthly child poverty rate increased from 12.1 percent in December 2021 to 17 percent in January 2022 as a result.

Here's the thing: Poor kids aren't poor because their parents aren't getting enough money to support them. Poor kids are poor because their parents are poor.

Every October, the Social Security Administration kicks out an annual wages report for the prior year. It's a poverty report, though nobody frames it that way. It's the stats for all of us Americans that work for a paycheck and pay into Social Security, from the highest paid to the lowest paid. And in 2020, there were a lot of lowest paid: The median income for an American worker was $34,612. That's $16.64 an hour. You can't rent a one-bedroom apartment let alone buy a car with that. $16 an hour is poor. If you make more than that, you make more than most Americans.

Under Obama, the median annual raise for a working American was 26 cents an hour. Under Trump it was 37 cents. Both were below the rate of inflation. Democrats and Republicans campaign on grievance, then deliver governance of subsistence. The blue hand washes the red.

I want to tell you about a poor kid I used to know. His name was Cletus. His parents were Mullaney and Swede. Mullaney and Swede didn't have front teeth. You pull teeth when you don't have the money to fix them. But nobody hires people with no front teeth, so it creates a cycle.

I was their neighbor. When the power would get cut because they couldn't pay the bill, we'd run extension cords across the driveway to keep the fridge running and the TV on for their three kids. What jobs Mullaney and Swede cobbled together were odd jobs at odd hours. Several times I dropped Swede off at some random warehouse out by the airport or off Redwood Road where he'd picked up part time seasonal work. He didn't ask for help, but he wouldn't turn you down either.

Rich kids self-isolate. Poor kids self-integrate. When you don't have any possessions to preoccupy you or your own bedroom to close the door to, you leave your house or apartment in search of entertainment. With their parents out working and our houses 10 feet apart, the kids migrated to our place when they got bored entertaining themselves.

Homeless kids
DALLAS - JUNE 18: Brian and Julie Morris sit with their three daughters in their room at the Family Gateway homeless shelter in Dallas, Texas. Julie Morris was laid off from his construction job in April and the family was evicted from their home in Hurst, Tx. when they could no longer make their rent payments. The National Center on Family Homelessness reported this year that Texas has the largest number of homeless children in the nation with more than 337,000 children living without permanent housing. John Moore/Getty Images

Cletus was the youngest, rail thin, about four feet tall, between seven and nine years old when I knew him. One of those little white kids that can stay out all day long tearing up the neighborhood and not get sunburnt in the process. That was Cletus. Always tearing it up and perennially white. His moon pie face was framed by a flouncy halo of curly blonde hair. He looked like the Little Prince minus the French accent and useless little planet.

When I wasn't working in the oilfield, I was working on the house. I'd often turn around to find Cletus watching what I was doing. Mullaney said just to keep an eye on him, so I did.

Cletus was smart. Scary smart. At seven he'd learned to understand the world by contextualizing it in terms of what is and what should be.

He'd say things like, "Stray cats wouldn't be stray if they had homes."

He'd say it like it was a moral failing, because he knew there were plenty of homes without cats. He knew stray cats were a choice, and they weren't his choice, or the cats' choice. He knew a lot of things he saw that he disapproved of were choices, and those things he disapproved of weren't up to him.

When they repaved South Temple, the section that cuts under the I-15 overpass along the Union Pacific Railway, they painted new lines and planted new trees in anticipation of newly minted college grads that like their ghettos clean. Cletus saw what was coming and who it was for.

"They didn't plant them trees for me." he told me.

"They didn't plant 'em for me either, man."

That kid had a morality streak that probably broke his heart as he grew older. Cletus was cool as hell.

Cletus was poor because his parents were poor. Most kids in America are born poor and will die poor. This is not the land of possibility, but the land of probability. We don't overcome. We succumb. Poverty is our American heritage.

Cyrus Tharpe is a hazmat tanker truck driver.

The views in this article are the writer's own.