Crisis of treatment and poverty in U.S.

A boy looks on as meals are served to residents of a Salvation Army shelter for homeless women and children in Detroit in January 2013. Then, there were 46.5 million people living in poverty in the United States, about one third being children under 18. (CNS photo/Jim West)

Today is the U.S. federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who dedicated his life and ministry to fighting for the marginalized and poor people. So this week’s blog starts with the marginalized – in this case, unaccompanied minors attempting to immigrate to the United States – and ends with the poor, and a new way to identify them.

Up close and personal

There has been a lot of reporting on the plight of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. southern border, but Americans for Immigrant Justice has a report that covers all the bases.

AI Justice was founded in 1996 as the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center by its current executive director, Cheryl Little, and two Catholic nuns – Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Sr. Maureen Kelleher and Humility of Mary Sr. Catherine Cassidy. By 2012, the group had grown to the point where it opened a Washington D.C. office and changed its name to reflect its national scope.

Its 44 page report: “Children Fleeing Central America: Stories From the Front Lines in Florida,” gives all the background on the issue – who the children are, where they are coming from and the horrors they are fleeing – with all the numbers and the terrors of the journey itself.

But the report does something else, too: It tells children’s stories of their treatment in detention centers in their own words.

Sara, a 14-year-old girl from Honduras, says:

“We were forced to sleep on the floor and had no blankets until the second day. The blankets we were given were aluminum foil-like and frozen solid and didn’t keep us warm. . . . There were no clocks in the room and the lights were always on. I lost track of time and felt like I was in jail.”

From the freezing cold cell, Sara says, they were taken to an airport, where they were kept in a hot car for five hours with no bathroom and nothing to eat or drink.

Milton, a 17-year-old boy from Guatemala, says:

“After they interviewed us they put us in a cell. We were there 12 hours and they did not give us any food during that time. There were no chairs or beds in that cell. The only way to use the restroom was a toilet in the cell that offered no privacy.”

In another detention center, he says:

“We were taken to a cell with about 48 men and boys in it. They had us lie down on the floor and gave us a blanket to use. . . . I was there three days. During that time they told us we had to remain lying down day and night. If I sat up or stood up, they would come in and scold me, and tell me that the next time I sat up they would punish me by making me stay there for a week. I was so discouraged and felt like I was in jail. I t was hard to stay lying down for so long. My leg, elbow and head were in a lot of pain due to the immigration officer who hit and kicked me. If I tried to sleep on my side, my head would hurt so much I couldn’t fall asleep.”

The report notes that this is not the first time there has been a surge of immigrant children arriving at our shores, but in the past, those children were often met with open arms. These children, however, are being met with protesters and threats, and a waning interest in comprehensive immigration reform.

Are we hiding the truth?

Disclosure: As a reporter who made a career of turning numbers into stories, I’ve been a fan of David Cay Johnston since he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for beat reporting for his coverage of the most mind-numbing agency on the planet, the Internal Revenue Service.

Today, he continues to turn numbers into stories, most recently for Aljazeera America, where he has a report on ALICE, a new way to measure poverty.

The federal government’s official poverty measure was developed in 1963 by a Social Security Administration analyst, Johnston writes, based on three times the minimum food budget required for sufficient healthy calorie intake. But it has never been updated and is widely known to be woefully inadequate for measuring poverty.

Enter ALICE, an acronym for the United Way’s “asset limited, income constrained, employed” measurement.

“The ALICE model measures how much income is needed for financial stability. It counts earnings from work as well as government and charitable aid,” Johnston writes. That part about including government and charitable aid will be important in a moment.

Since the federal measure of poverty is so out of date, it’s no surprise that the ALICE measurement of the poor in the six states where it’s used is much larger than the “official” count. But when you remember that it includes aid people are receiving such as food stamps or other programs and they still do not have financial stability, the numbers are downright shocking:

The official federal poverty level for a family of four in 2012 was $23,050, Johnston says, but in Indiana, the least expensive of the six states studied, the ALICE threshold for financial stability is double that: $46,495. In Connecticut, where the cost of living is higher, the threshold is $64,689.

Where ALICE is used – California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey – poverty rates range from 30 percent of families to 45 percent. Using the federal rate, by contrast, the percentages range from 10.7 percent in Connecticut to 17 percent in Florida and Michigan.

Digging deeper, Johnston says, reveals that many of the working poor are people with college degrees who simply cannot find work in today’s economy:

“This gives the lie to claims by social conservatives . . . who assert that poverty is overwhelmingly the natural product of misbehavior such as dropping out of school, abusing drugs, having children out of wedlock and laziness,” he says.

Johnston notes that since ALICE is created and pushed by United Way, which often “represent business leadership as well as prosperous and generous families,” it is now the elite that are pushing for a new – and more accurate – measure of need in America, and that “when the elites want change, they can make it happen.”

Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at dstockman@ncronline.org.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on @DanStockman or on Facebook.]

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