Growing up is hard to do, and growing up poor is even harder. Already faced with the normal growing pains of childhood, children growing up in low-income neighborhoods in the United States face what may sometimes seem like insurmountable struggles. Though some argue the degree of severity when compared with third-world countries, the reality is still the same. A lack of resources to any degree while growing up in these conditions, such as those I discovered right in my Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood, can severely limit a child’s ability to find a way out.
The day I saw for myself just how bad some children’s lives actually were, it had been a blistering cold winter day. I was at the corner bodega in my Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood. Although I was low-income myself, I was virtually surrounded with those who struggles appeared tremendous in comparison to my own. Making my milk selection from the semi-operating refrigerator which moaned like a hungry infant, and whose contents left anything but a desirable impression, I picked up a half-gallon 1% milk.
As I made my way to the counter to pay for this milk, which may or may not have been consumable, the cowbells hanging on the front entrance doorknob signaled someone’s arrival. In walked a middle aged woman with her young daughter. The first thing I noticed was the stress apparent on the little girl’s face, an expression with a deep frown and furrowed eyebrows above her eyes that screamed pain. Only appearing about five years old, this girl looked like she had just arrived from a foreign third-world country, hungry and oppressed. She was a walking skeleton, swimming in the clothes she was wearing.
She had a smooth, cocoa-colored complexion, with her skin looking as soft as the fuzz on a fresh peach. Looking down, I saw this vibrant skin was contradicted with dirty clothes. The little girl was wearing a pair of faded gray jeans with big, open holes that exposed her knobby knees and painfully thin legs, and an over-sized soot-covered parka, clearly a hand-me down from another. Her hair was an unkempt mess, with half of her hair with fuzzy braids, and the other half a natural maze of knots, clearly her hair was not a concern to the mother.
Her mother looked progressively more defeated than her daughter. Unlike her daughter’s radiant complexion, which hadn’t been destroyed yet by the beast, the mother had the look of longtime malnutrition. Pale, light brown skin gave the impression of poor health. Her sunken cheeks were separated by a wide open-wounded nose. It appeared that the woman had a runny nose for some time, resulting in the gaping wounds that covered the skin between her nose and her top lip. Instead of the disarray of hair that her daughter had, the mother had a dirty, raggedy scarf secured on her head.
Complimenting the scarf was an equally dirty mismatched jogging suit with bleach stains from head to toe. Despite the freezing temperatures outside, this woman was not wearing a coat. My immediate thought was on the status of her health care, and whether her daughter as well had access to proper healthcare. Looking at mother and daughter standing there together, one would assume that they may have unattended medical problems based on their unkempt appearances, when in reality, it was probably just the physical symptoms of a constantly poor lifestyle.
The two were so skinny, if one were to give a group hug, they could wrap their arms completely around the two of them together. As the woman made her way to the front counter, I inhaled the stench of body odor lingering in her path. The smell was unbearable; it was the stench of the city zoo on a steamy summer day. I wondered when the last time laundry had been done in their family. While her mother was buying her loose cigarette from the cashier, her daughter began to roam the store, longingly staring at the various candy and toys the bodega owners scattered around the store to lure the children with.
These store-owners were teasing these children as well as making it hard for the parents to say no, I’m sure creating a lot of disappointment among children who already experienced disappointment on a daily basis. The little girl looked at me, and underneath all the dirty clothes, I could still see a radiant spirit, not fully knocked down by the power we call poverty. Her frail fingers grasped a small makeup kit specifically for African American girls. She looked at me and smiled just as deep as the frown she had been displaying while walking in.
This ninety-nine cent makeup kit was clearly something she had been eying for some time, the want building up from many trips to this bodega. Her mother spotted the child holding the makeup kit, and screamed harshly, “Don’t even think about it! ” The little girl looked defeated, but without remark set the toy back onto its shelf. She was expecting the rejection; she hadn’t even asked her mother to buy the toy for her. She was simply pleased with getting a couple of minutes to look at it through the plastic case, and I’m sure imagining this makeup was hers and how she would look once it was applied.
I guess my own reaction of sympathy and empathy towards the little girl was painted on my face, because her mother looked at me with anger flashing through her eyes. She clearly felt offended by my interest in her and her daughter. A person could cut the tension in the air with a knife, and I quickly looked away, inclined to mind my own business. “We not rich like the white people, where we can buy our kids a toy every time we go to the store,” the mother proclaimed, while looking directly at me. The mother then proceeded to jerk her daughter away from the toy rack by her bony arm, causing the girl to yelp in pain.
Tears welled up in the little girl’s eyes, and her bottom lip began to quiver. My heart ached for this little girl, as I saw this fresh defeat beat her spirit down a little more, leaving less hope for this girl. Her quiver turned into a full-fledged howl, with tears streaming down her cheeks. As the little girl cried a river, her mother did not look back once, and continued to pull the frantic little girl out the door. Right before the woman and her daughter disappeared out the door, the hysterical child looked back at me with overflowing, bloodshot eyes, and the look on her face was like an autobiography of the little girl’s life.
I could see this little girl was not a young child throwing a temper tantrum. She was a child acting out in the hopes that this superficial complaint for a makeup kit would make someone take notice to what she really needed. She needed her basic needs met, such as enough food to keep her healthy and strong, and clothes that did not leave her vulnerable to the harsh winters that were common in Philadelphia. A lot of people take things like this for granted, not realizing that a lack of resources for these basic needs makes life incredibly hard for poor children.
I envisioned the mother as a child herself, and realized the probability that this life of poverty was a vicious cycle, one that rarely gets broken. Her own childhood was probably one filled with disappointments and rejections. The constant struggle to overcome the oppression that comes along with being poor can defeat people, and few make it out on top. If someone did not intervene in this little girl’s life, she would probably end up in the same situation with her own daughter, repeating the cycle of her mother. That chance encounter with the little girl was the worst condition I had ever seen a child in.
I thought back on that day, and I had wished I had the bravery to approach that young girl and her mother, and offered myself as a mentor and a friend. Even though I had been in no condition to give financial support, I could have offered my skills and education to that beautiful child. Instead, I let them walk out the door. I went home that night, and as I huddled underneath the satin sheets on my queen sized bed, I couldn’t help but wonder where that little girl was, and whether she had a bed to sleep in with blankets to keep her warm.
My heart continued to ache, as I thought about her lying on the floor in a dirty house, with a thin sheet to keep her fragile little body warm. I learned my lesson that tormenting evening. The guilt and self-loathing that resulted from my indifference towards this clear injustice ate at me the entire night. I will never again turn my head to what seems like such a serious situation for a child. A lot of people in the world tend to look away in silence, when they have been given the opportunity to speak up for poor childrens’ injustices.
Poverty breeds all other types of problems for the children as well, violence and abuse for example, so building these children’s self-esteem and hope for their futures is imperative for a change. Without a change, this cycle of misery and neglect of basic human needs will continue to be passed on from generation to generation. It is our responsibility to speak up for those who are innocent and weak, and make sure they are given equal opportunity to rise above poverty. We have to stop this vicious cycle now through public programs and government intervention, so we can give these children hope for the future.