Ehlers kickstarted the event by shining a light on the extent of youth poverty in the United States.
“The poverty rate for children in the U.S. is 16%,” Ehlers explained. “That is one in six children.”
Twelve million children are living below the federal poverty line today. In 2019, the line stood at $21,000 for a mom with two kids, but that significantly discounts the modern obstacles vulnerable families face.
“The poverty line ignores changes in the cost to childcare, medical expenses, housing, and transportation,” Ehlers said. “How far can $21,000 go in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles? Or even Mobile or Flint or a small town in Kansas?”
Ehlers brought the sobering statistics to life by sharing somber tales of how poverty upended the lives of three innocent children.
There was Sam, a high school student who aspired to become a teacher. He had registered for the SAT, but when he went to take the test he was denied entry. Why? The family had become homeless and they could not verify an address.
Then there was the 9-year-old, straight-A student whose Army veteran mom earned just over the threshold to be eligible for state-sponsored childcare. With no other options, the mom entrusted a relative to babysit her 9-year-old. Horribly, this led to abuse and the daughter having to leave school. The mom, who had done everything right—she was a veteran, she was working—ended up having to go on assistance to care for her child.
And finally, there was Deamonte. He had a toothache, but after trying to schedule a dentist appointment, Deamonte’s mom found out her Medicaid had lapsed, because when she was in a shelter they hadn’t forwarded her the necessary paperwork. Deamonte’s toothache eventually became an abscess, which became a brain infection—which killed him.
“There are profound consequences for children who live in poverty,” Ehlers said.
Maria Enchautegui, a Research Director at the Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud, followed Ehlers’ remarks by presenting a keynote that explored the costs of child poverty as well as potential solutions to the epidemic.
Ehlers and Enchautegui set the tone for a panel discussion that delved into the economic consequences of the high child poverty rate in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The panel featured Enchautegui, Kimberly Causey-Gomez, Dr. Irwin Redlener, and Leticia Peguero. It was moderated by Felix V. Matos Rodriguez.
Rodriguez made a concerted effort to keep the focus of the discussion on the economic effects of child poverty, but a singular question repeatedly took center stage: what can we do now to combat the issue?
Redlener stressed the importance of voting for public officials who outline serious policy to fight child poverty, Rodriquez challenged audience members to study how racial inequality has influenced the rate of youth poverty in marginalized communities, while Causey-Gomez spoke directly to service providers when she made a pledge to challenge the status quo of assistance protocols.
At the end of the day, increasing our collective focus on combatting child poverty is not only an investment in children, it is an investment in the economic success of the United States.
“We lose $1 trillion a year in productivity rooted in child poverty,” Ehlers said. “If we invest 10% of that in proven interventions and programs, we can cut the child poverty rate in half by 2030.”