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Acknowledging but not addressing child poverty in the Mayor’s State of the City Address

January 30, 2012

On Saturday, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell gave his annual State of the City Address to a crowd of 500 people gathered at convention center. The focus of this years address was children.

Mayor Heartwell acknowledged that despite all the solid area programs that addressed child well-being, that all the measurements indicate that child well-being is declining. Here are the statistics the Mayor provided.

Did you now that 36.7% of all children in Grand Rapids live below the poverty line?  Nearly four out of ten children live in poverty!  What does that mean? Four of ten children experience persistent hunger. Four of ten children live in housing that is unhealthy or unsafe. Four of ten children don’t have the resources they need to succeed in school: books in the home; routine access to the internet; paper, pencils, calculators. Four of ten children can’t afford the enrichment experiences that their more affluent friends have. Four of ten children probably have substandard medical and dental care, if they have any at all.”

The Grand Rapids Mayor stated that he met with 43 people in recent months, people he referred to as “sages,” to find out what they thought about what needed to be done to address the awful condition of so many children in this city. Heartwell said he met with, “College and University Presidents, to titans of business and industry, to local elected officials, philanthropists and foundation directors, non-profit professionals, parents and…of course, children.”

A summary of what the Mayor learned and is recommending is as follows: First, the Mayor wants the community as a whole to have conversations about children, record the ideas on how to address the problems they face and send them to the Community Research Institute at Grand Valley State University.

Second, the Mayor highlights the work of the Upward Bound program, which offers poor children an opportunity to get to college. Heartwell said that the program could serve more kids if there was more federal funding. The Mayor then tells the crowd gathered that he went to a local Business man and asked if he would find more funding for the program.

A third program is a college scholarship program through the Grand Rapids Foundation. A fourth idea is top promote more literacy and to get more parents to read to their kids. A fifth idea discussed was a new educational model at the Kent Intermediate School District, where best practices are being shared amongst area high schools.

Lasting, the Mayor offers up a suggestion from Michigan Governor Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority. This is a proposal to have state entity manage local schools that are struggling.

In many ways one has to respect the Mayor for his passion and what motivates his intentions. It seems clear that he truly wants children in Grand Rapids to not live in poverty, to have the opportunity to get a good education, have good homes and a healthy lifestyle.

Where all of this falls apart seems to be the unwillingness to acknowledge the reasons for the 36.7% of Grand Rapids children living in poverty. All the good intentions in the world won’t make a difference with this reality. All the money we spend to improve educational opportunities and all the efforts we put into literacy will not fundamentally reduce poverty.

Poverty is a result of the economic system of capitalism. The parents of these children living in poverty are unemployed or underemployed and do not make wages that are adequate for a family to live on. Children live in poverty because their parents live in poverty, something which the Mayor did not address.

The Mayor did not address the fact that housing foreclosures are still occurring at high rates or that unemployment benefits are dwindling. The Mayor did not address that disproportionately high numbers of Black and Latino youth are dropping out of school and ending up in the Prison Industrial Complex. The Mayor also did not address the incredible wealth gap that exists in this city, with a small percentage of people with tremendous wealth, while a growing number of people are the working class poor.

This same failure to look at the root causes of child poverty was how the Kids Count Michigan data on child poverty in Kent County was addressed last week. Everyone was acknowledging that there is a growing number of children living in poverty, but no one was asking why.

The Mayor ended his speech by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The comment by Dr. King spoke to the interdependence of all humanity.

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars.  As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people in this world cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy even if I just got a good checkup at Mayo Clinic.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  This is the way our world is made.  No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent.  We are interdependent.”

This is a nice quote from Dr. King, but it doesn’t address the totality of what King thought about poverty and the economic system that causes poverty. Here is what King had to say about poverty and capitalism:

“We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry….Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism…here must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”

It seems to this writer that poverty cannot truly be addressed until we start messing with people, people King identifies as members of the capitalist class – the Captains of Industry.

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