Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ellen Hamilton: 'Safety net' can be a trap for poor women

Re: "Florida's F grade is hardly a surprise" (My View, Nov. 28).
Published: December 05. 2010 in the Tallahassee Democrat

It was the shards of glass on the ground that kept getting my attention. I was standing on the playground of a housing project, spending time with a young African-American girl whose social/emotional/psychological needs I was there to assess. As I observed this child, described as belligerent by her teacher and hard to manage by her mother, I was distracted by the dangers in the grass.

Why didn't someone pick up that glass, so the children could be safe? Were residents of the project waiting for the management to do it? The playground itself looked shabby, with much of the equipment broken, missing or unusable.

I stood there, wondering what could be done to truly improve the circumstances of people of the projects, people who are our neighbors.

Better brains than mine have attempted to unravel this rough, tightly woven fabric of racial, social, economic, political and psychological threads we call poverty. How do we alter the cycles in which poor people find themselves?

Dr. Edward Holifield made an impassioned plea that more attention be given to the issue of black babies and the appalling number born prematurely and those who die as infants. He notes social and political causes, citing "contempt for poor children in general and black children in particular." He reports that the "dysfunctionality" of Medicaid is "considered by some to be a risk factor for infant mortality." "In 2008, 42 percent of the births in Leon County were covered by Medicaid, which means that Medicaid must share the blame for such terrible birth outcomes, especially in regard to black infant mortality," he wrote.

This last statement is poisoned by a stark contradiction. The large number of Medicaid-paid-for births indicates that many women, without adequate income and insurance, are having babies. Whether Tea Partiers, conservatives, moderates or liberals, many people bristle, and some bleed, at this reality. Surely, the medical services paid for by Medicaid can do only so much to ensure the safe arrival and survival of black babies.

They represent hope for families, and I have heard many young, black mothers, no matter how dire their circumstances, refer to their babies as joys, blessings, the inspiration that keeps them going.

We all need hope. However, as long as young women and men have no cause for hope, other than having a baby, we have no chance of stopping the generational cycles of poverty.

The absence of black fathers has been noted as a factor in the health of black babies. Drug and alcohol addiction, incarcerations and poor education are rampant in the poorer families of our society. Self-esteem is compromised for many young people of all races, and depression lurks as an unrecognized, undiagnosed condition that is both cause and effect in the cycle of poverty.

It is illogical and dangerous to blame Medicaid, cracked and flawed though it is, for the terrible sadness of black infant mortality, without also looking at other issues. The binding and blinding truth is that the availability of Medicaid, intended to be a safety net for girls, women and infants — a critical, compassionate net we should be proud to have — is also a potential trap. Teenagers and young women often trade in their youth, sacrifice their educations and have multiple babies they can ill afford for reasons we must come to understand.

The hard-to-speak truth is that the contempt Dr. Holifield and others witness toward poor, black children is a contempt for the circumstances of individuals perceived to be using a system designed as a safety net, which has become the ground on which their lives and their children's lives are based.

While Aid to Families with Dependent Children is no longer available, young mothers can still receive housing subsidies, food stamps and other services. Extremely alarming is the trend of some parents invested in having their children labeled with a disability in order to receive disability benefits. For some families, this is the new welfare.

As long as young, black men leave, literally, their pants on the ground, and young, black women do not see for themselves a role, a life, a dream that takes them into young adulthood before they become pregnant, babies will continue to carry the burden of a community of people that is hurting and wants hope and a society and political system that are ambivalent, at best, about providing support to people seen as irresponsible.

The playground on which I stood a couple of years ago is no longer littered with glass, and new equipment is in place. At least, this has changed.

When I last contacted the young mother of the child mentioned above, she reported that her daughter's behavior had become less problematic. She no longer needed my services, and she was happy. She was pregnant, again.

As we lobby for better services for babies, we must also examine the effects of those services on the people who brought the babies into being, and be aware that, as we hold the net, we may also be setting the trap, as subtle and dangerous as those shards of glass on the playground.

As a society grappling with painful and knotty issues — fear, ignorance, racism and the legacies of the sin that was slavery — we must recognize, with heart and mind, the legitimate concerns of all segments of our society.

Related Posts:

Florida's F grade hardly a surprise
Concerns about facts and infant mortality

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