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YMCA Cutbacks To Affect Hundreds Of Children

khts_editorial2

By Larry Rosen

Sometimes, life sucks.

In a few days, as a direct consequence of our shameful inability as Californians to govern ourselves responsibly over a period of decades, your YMCA will begin notifying 774 young children and their impoverished parents that there will be no more YMCA child care for them.

 

In 60 days, $3.6 million in state funded grants for school-age child care will end.  Good luck.  God bless.  Hope you can figure something out.

The cuts will affect 16 of 22 grant-funded child care sites we have been operating for decades in low-income communities.  The wreckage will be greatest in the branches least able to take the hit, but, far more importantly, in the lives of families with the fewest resources and the fewest options.  The roll call of damage is, with a couple of exceptions, the roll call of our work in urban communities:  Inglewood/Centinela Valley YMCA (1 site, 49 kids); Weingart South Los Angeles YMCA (3 sites, 120 kids); Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA (2 sites, 94 kids); Mid Valley YMCA (1 site, 49 kids); East Valley YMCA (1 site, 30 kids); Crenshaw YMCA (6 sites, 335 kids); Montebello YMCA (1 site, 25 kids); Gardena-Carson YMCA (1 site, 60 kids); and the South Pasadena-San Marino YMCA (1 site, 12 kids).

All of these families pay something toward their child's fees in order to qualify for the program.  The parents are partners in this, which is why the YMCA agreed to participate in the grant years ago - we tend not to like any grant funded program which limits our ability to involve the parents and share the responsibility.  I have to tell you, though, if you could sit through even 10 of the interviews with these parents to determine what they could and should pay, you'd be in tears long before #11 walked in.  We tend to demonize poverty and the poor in this country ("these people should accept more responsibility and work harder, just like I did"), but believe me, it ain't that simple.  It's all too easy to work very hard and still be very poor in America .  Minimum wage is going up this month to $7.70/hour:  that means that the good people we need and rely upon to wash our dishes, clean our houses, carry our boxes and do a million other menial chores we'd rather not touch with a ten foot pole will be earning $16,000 a year.  The federal poverty line for a family of 4 in 2009 is $22,050.

Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture how you'd feed, clothe and house your family on that without help from somewhere.  Heck, try to imagine doing that on twice that much without having to live in a neighborhood where your kids could get caught in a crossfire going to and from school or inducted into a gang by the time they were 11.

* * * *

I know, I know:  lots of us came from poor backgrounds and we did ok, didn't we?  All without any luck or any help, either, right?  Yeah, right.

My grandparents were poor immigrants who arrived at Ellis with the minimum required $10, no English, no formal education and no job.  They were willing to work hard and did.  Piece work for pennies a day in the sweatshops in New York's garment district.  They endured unimaginable hardship and vicious discrimination, but things turned out ok for them, didn't it?  Forget the fact that it wasn't until the third generation, 60 years after they got off the boat, that a member of the family actually graduated from college - the Rosens are an American success story.  But what do we really learn from this?  That if the Rosens can do it, anyone can?

There are millions of such triumphant stories, but there's also a real danger in believing we should promote this level of hardship as an experience everyone should have in order to develop the proper character and sense of responsibility required to call yourself a citizen of the U.S.A.   The millions of successes are being overwhelmed, increasingly, by many more millions of failures and a hamster wheel cycle of generational poverty in too many communities, rural and urban.

If a few fail, it's a problem of personal responsibility.  If there are more people in poverty who fail than manage to triumph over it, it's a problem of systems, structures and public policy.

What I know as a 40-year YMCA guy and a social worker to a dead-bang certainty is this:  children of poor, under-employed, under-educated parents growing up in dangerous neighborhoods and attending over-crowded, poorly equipped schools stand a far better chance of growing up to be just like their parents than they do becoming the poster child for the American experience.  Children born into poverty are many times more likely to have been born without proper prenatal care, to be of low birth weight, to be the child of a teenager or a single parent and to begin their pursuit of the American dream without a drop of hope.  These kids are far more likely to be spending time in the juvenile justice system than they are to graduate from high school, let alone go to college -- that's a fact and you could look it up.

Unless, of course, they get some help along the way.

* * * *

Help along the way comes in the form of a YMCA child care center in a poor neighborhood, providing life experiences and opportunity that few of these families can muster on their own.  Help is tutoring, a mentor, a relationship with someone from their neighborhood who actually did make it out, learning how to swim, going to camp, belonging to a team with a coach who cares, a safe place to be after school, more support for making tough choices, a chance to have fun without having to duck for cover.

What the YMCA provides in these settings touches tens of thousands of lives every day and makes a huge difference in ways that seem simple and obvious to people of privilege who always had such things, but which are utterly absent in more neighborhoods than you'd like to admit.

In 60 days, we'll be touching 774 fewer of these lives and it breaks my heart.

* * * *

$3.6 million is not a hole we can fill by re-organizing or appealing to private philanthropy.  We might be able to raise $3.6 for one year, but this is a year-in, year-out matter that requires a public partnership.  We're working on a reorganization plan that may allow us to keep 100 of these kids with us.  We'll save every one we possibly can.

* * * *

The human face on California's $26 billion failure to make responsible policy is hidden from most of us as we watch our friends in Sacramento try to make lemonade out of a broken system.

Is there anyone out there who believes that overcrowded classrooms, less health insurance, less child care, fewer health clinics, fewer shelters and more desperation won't result in societal problems that will cost us far more over time in the form of more crime, less educated workers and more people living on the streets?  What we're doing with the state budget now - and I am one who believes we don't have much choice about what we're doing now - is going to haunt us for a generation and cost us in ways we don't want to pay.

If we don't seize this time to repair the broken way we govern our state, we'll be facing a version of this every year.  This isn't a simple question of living within our means (which we have no choice but to do, of course), but the larger question of what a society must do if its citizens are going to have a chance to thrive.

Until we reform the initiative process to eliminate paid signature gatherers and ballot box budgeting, acknowledge the epic failures of term limits, reform and up-date Prop 13, eliminate that ridiculous 2/3 majority for budgeting decisions and align our priorities with the investments required to prevent problems and develop capacity, California will continue to fail its children.

* * * *

In this light, it's time to share again that brilliant call by the poet Ina Hughs, a columnist and journalist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel.  Ms Hughs wrote a poem about 15 years ago that many consider one of the most touching and inspiring expressions of our duty to children ever written.  It hangs in my office and I see it everyday.

I close with it today in the hopes that it will live in your heart.

A Prayer for Children

by Ina J. Hughs
William Morrow & Co., NY c. 1995

We pray for children
who sneak popsicles before supper,
who erase holes in math workbooks,
who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food,
who like ghost stories,
who can never find their shoes.

And we pray for those
who stare at photographers behind barbed wire,
who can't bound down the street in a pair of new sneakers,
who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead,
who never go to the circus,
who live in an X-rated world.

We pray for children
who sleep with the dog and bury the goldfish
who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions,
who get visits from the tooth fairy,
who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money.

And we pray for those
who never get dessert,
who have no safe blanket to drag behind them,
who watch their parents watch them die,
who can't find any bread to steal,
who don't have any rooms to clean up,
whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser,
whose monsters are real.

We pray for children
who spend all their allowance before Tuesday,
who shove dirty clothes under the bed, and never rinse out the tub,
who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool,
who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone,
whose tears we sometimes laugh at and
whose smiles can make us cry.

And we pray for those
whose nightmares come in the daytime,
who will eat anything,
who have never seen a dentist,
who aren't spoiled by anybody,
who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep,
who live and move, but have no being.

We pray for children who want to be carried
and for those who must,
for those we never give up on and
for those who don't get a second chance.
for those we smother...
and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it.

Larry Rosen is the President and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles.