Don't Let Poverty Numbers Obscure the Kids

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By Donna Britt
Friday, November 11, 2005

Three days ago, before House Republican leaders were forced to scuttle a vote yesterday on a $54 billion budget-cutting bill that would have scaled back Medicaid, food stamp and student loan programs, I stood in line at the Nashville airport, wondering why so few Americans seemed outraged by this threat to some of our nation's poorest children.

Just like that, a woman cooing at two infants distracted me.

The tousled-haired twins in a two-seater stroller are, their grandmother told me, "so different." The younger one is an Energizer Bunny-quick crawler; the older one barely scoots, but his rosy fingers "pick everything apart."

Grandma, it turned out, is from Louisiana. And though Katrina didn't directly touch her family, she "still can't believe that what happened there happened in America," she said. "I know the bridge those poor people were stuck on. . . ."

Her sharp blue eyes became slits.

"You don't think I'd smash in a grocery store window to get some water for these babies?" she asked.

Her passion for her grandsons made me wonder: Is it numbers -- which are as cold and bloodless as her twins are warm and alive -- that keep us from caring more about poor children?

Are they to blame for the yawns that greet the hair-raising words "13 million U.S. children live in poverty"? Do numbers explain why the sentence "More than 9 million U.S. children have no health insurance" elicits a stunned blink or a sharp inhalation, but then is forgotten?

Our responses to numbers reflect our experiences. We hear "nine," and some of us flash on our fourth-grade son's age, or the play we just saw with that title, or the number of times that 50 Cent got shot, the rapper-turned-actor repeatedly reminds us.

Who can experience "13 million"?

The thought of a sick child, at least, inspires feeling. Some people recall their terror at their young son's wails after a hard playground fall, their daughter's terrifying limpness during a fever. Like the Nashville grandma, they might have done anything to halt that one child's hurt.

But "9 million"?


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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