A total of 327 boys and girls came through the doors of Alternative House last year. They came because their chances of success and safety were better at the Crisis Center’s runaway and homeless youth shelter than at their home.
There was a good chance they were having problems at school, falling behind and not getting along. More were teen girls than boys, and some were as young as 12. These are kids whose opportunities in life are diminished. To have a chance, they chose to leave home.
There is a huge and growing level of unequal opportunity in our country, and these kids are often the face of it. How do you get a good education, climb the income ladder, buy products, enhance your community, improve your home when you have inequality of opportunity and income?
In Indiana, the average per person monthly Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payment is about $85, according to the Indiana Family & Social Services Administration. A car is an impossible luxury. How do you get your kids to school when getting enough food until the end of the month is a concern? How do you afford a safe neighborhood with no threatening gangs when you step out your door?
Recently, we heard about President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty at its 50-year anniversary. It had some successes cutting the experience of poverty through food stamps and health care.
Another former president, Republican Teddy Roosevelt, gave a speech in 1910 in which he said the federal government had a responsibility to promote equality of opportunity and attack special privilege and vested interests. “In every wise struggle for human betterment, one of the main objects has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity,” he said.
Equality of opportunity should mean investment in the young, investment in skills and education starting early enough so immature brains get nurtured.
The belief that greater inequality would make people work harder and invest in their education works only so far. When the rungs up the economic ladder are diminished, it means fewer people with skills required for today and tomorrow’s jobs and eventual slower economic growth.
This growing gap between the richest Americans and everyone else is hurting the U.S. economy. Middle class pay has stagnated while wealthier households have thrived.
Joseph Stiglitz, a Lake County native and Nobel laureate economist teaching at Columbia University, says we need to be aware how money converts into political power.
It isn't shocking to hear that money has influence and can favor self-interest. The effects of inequality when it results in poor education, housing and neighborhoods have an effect on America as the land of opportunity and our self-interest. The lack of involvement in infrastructure – pothole marked roads, falling bridges – is one thing, but the failure to invest in people has generational effects.
The kids walking through our doors at the Crisis Center are the ones who will someday soon be paying our Social Security. We should want to invest in them. It is their future, but it is our future too.