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Another Storm on the Horizon

It's been a busy week here on our hill fifty miles south of the nation's capitol. Tuesday we had an earthquake. A bookcase overturned, some china was broken and some pictures fell off the wall. Thursday we had a tropical storm with 90 mile per hour winds, 1.3 inches of rain, and 40-something lightning strikes in two hours. The power went out, some good size branches came down, fire from the sky blasted the top out of one tree (which landed on the neighbor's house), and a big oak crashed down in the woods behind our house and toppled into the ravine. Friday we had to gather limbs and sticks and rake and mow up the leaves.

Yesterday Irene blew through with more rain and wind. My petunias are beat up, that nice urn on the back porch tipped over and cracked, and, for almost eight hours I went without power which meant I couldn't check my email or watch the weather channel to see if it there was still a storm outside. Thank goodness I had my iPhone, my flashlight, and a good book.

So much for disaster and hard times in my life.

But you know what? I didn't get much else done this week. It's true I had messes to clean up, but the biggest problem was my level of distraction. Of course there wasn't much we could have done about the earthquake. Who knew? One minute I was standing in a store and the next minute merchandise was rolling around and everyone was running for the parking lot where we watched out cars bouncing up and down. But the hurricane was another story. Everyone on the East Coast knew it was coming. An enormous amount of time, energy, and money was invested in preparing for disaster. After all, better to be safe than sorry and really, it was foolish not to prepare when the probability of disaster was so high. So shelters were set up, provisioned and opened, and public officials stood in front of the cameras promising safe harbor until the storm and danger had passed.

According to data released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in its annual report over the last decade there has been a significant decline in economic well-being for low income children and families. The official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009, essentially returning to the same level as the early 1990s. This increase means that 2.4 million more children are living below the federal poverty line. Data also reveals the impact of the job and foreclosure crisis on children. In 2010, 11 percent of children had at least one unemployed parent and 4 percent have been affected by foreclosure since 2007....In 2009, 42 percent of our nation's children, or 31 million, lived in families with incomes below twice the federal poverty line or $43,512/year for a family of four, a minimum needed for most families to make ends meet.

NEWS FLASH:

  • When a family is struggling to put food on the table at the end of the month, there's not a lot of money laying around for uniforms, diorama or science project supplies, or AP tests.
  • When a parent is trying desperately to find work or hold on to two part-time jobs to keep a family afloat, they don't have time to research multiple school options, jump through the hoops of getting their child enrolled in a "good school", provide transportation to that school or promise to volunteer at school.
  • When kids don't know whether or not they'll have a home next week, they may have a hard time focusing on schoolwork - and it doesn't much matter whether a hurricane or foreclosure is the cause.

Thousands of people stayed glued to their TVs this weekend wondering if, when, and how Hurricane Irene would create disaster. The vast majority of us survived the storm with little more than some inconvenience.

Yet, almost half of our nation's children are endangered by the crisis of family instability and lack of economic security. Now that is real disaster for now and the future. It's not a possibility, it's a certainty. And it's not a temporary situation, it's a permanent one. And it will be a disaster not only for these children, but for our government, our economy and for those of us who live quite comfortably removed from the point of impact. We will all be affected.

Some stakeholders have taken the position that our schools should serve as sort of emergency shelters, with the school staff cast the role of relief workers. But school as shelter from poverty and family disruption is a solution that is neither functional nor sustainable. While a shelter may help children survive, it is unlikely that most will thrive in such a setting. Nor is it realistic to assume that a school faculty can function in the dual role of full time relief workers and full time educators without burning out after a few years. Superman is a myth. He's not coming. Teachers are people with lives and families of their own. "Sheltering in place" at school doesn't address the reality that a shelter is usually a last resort. People are hesitant to come in because they must give up their independence and take on the role of supplicant.

Most of our schools are already serving as part time emergency shelters for too many children. We feed them. We deal with their health issues. We provide safe after-school environments. We quietly see to it that they have school supplies. We "find" coats for those who don't have one. We counsel parents who need help accessing social services.

Our schools are holding their own and making progress in helping children prepare for what lies ahead. One could argue that they are doing so against almost impossible odds.
Schools have been and will continue to be shelters and safe havens for children. But it is disingenuous to pretend that they can address their primary function of education while attempting to address the dual disaster of poverty and dysfunctional family circumstances.

Last night the President addressed the lingering effects of Hurricane Irene's passage, saying, "I want people to understand that this is not over. The impacts of this storm will be felt for some time, and the recovery effort will last for weeks or longer."

Hurricane Irene was a drop in the bucket compared to our current poverty rate among our children, and if we don't do something about it, we are headed into the eye of a storm from which we may never recover as a nation.

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