Archive for February, 2007

Poverty Among Us

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

“Mommy, are we poor?”

How does a parent answer a question like that? Sometimes kids pay no attention to the relative ‘wealth’ of those living around them. They are who they are, and they play together and drink milk and eat cookies together.

Yet, in a county where the 2000 census reports our “median family income” is $78,877; five percent of our 39,290 families live in poverty, which means they earn “below the poverty level,” a mere $18,850. Even more troubling, Census reports 9.1 percent of Arlington’s children under the age of 18 live in poverty.

Imagine what that must mean. Hunger? Missed meals? Tattered clothes? Parents working two or more jobs just to keep the family together?

Here we are in a caring jurisdiction that boasts of high incomes, exploding business construction; neighborhoods with out-of-sight housing prices and ‘McMansions’ popping up among the older homes. And almost one in ten of our youngsters live in a household where Mom and Dad (if they’re together) can barely get by each month.

Now, consider this: According to the Marjorie Hughes Fund for Children, 20 to 25 percent of the children in Arlington’s public schools have no health insurance. So, not only is a little one or teen hungry and cold at night (to keep the fuel bill down), but Mom or Dad probably can’t afford to take them to a doctor’s office when their cold takes a turn for the worse.

You’ve been there. A three-year-old screaming in pain at two in the morning with an ear infection and high fever. You and I can get in our cars and head to an urgent care facility, where a doctor can make a diagnosis and prescribe antibiotics that you then buy at the all night drug store.

With no insurance card to show and likely no car to drive, what must it be to watch your child suffer, holding their aching little form close to yours, as he or she coughs or cries or moans?

Think of it: one in four of the youngsters who sit in our classrooms may have to ‘tough it out’ and stay in bed when the flu or a bad cold hits; or worse, a broken limb. Their folks can’t afford to go to a regular doctor or the drug store, without cutting back on some other household expense. And what would that be? Food? Clothing? Utilities?

How often do you hear the phrase, “We are blessed”? And what of those who have little beyond a bag of groceries and no insurance protection? Are they ‘damned’ to live with so little?

Our society worships ‘things’ and the possession of them. We earn our comfortable incomes and live our comfortable lives, often without realizing that not far down the street or on the other side of the county there lives a mother who works into the night, cleaning others’ sheets or bathrooms or floors. Working, working and working more to make life sustainable for her children.

All the while praying, “Please, God, don’t let her get sick; I can’t help her.” Or, “Please heal my leg; it hurts so much when I bend down, and the boss says he’ll let me go if I don’t speed up like the rest.”

The County provides a number of health-related services (call 703-228-1200) for those who cannot afford to pay for them. They include prenatal services to help pregnant mothers with no access to health insurance; an immunization clinic to provide protection against the flu and other childhood diseases; a dental clinic; and a “well child” clinic which offers physical exams, vision and hearing checks, developmental and nutritional assessment, and lead poisoning screening. The County’s Public Health Services can be reached for emergencies, 24 hours a day, via 703-228-4610.

But that only takes a family so far; care for illness and medications is available for those who qualify at the Public Assistance Program, which offers financial, medical and housing help at 703-228-1350. Thankfully there is also the Marjorie Hughes Fund for Children, which works with public health nurses and school staffs to see that families with sick children get the help they need.

To help, you can send a donation to the Marjorie Hughes Fund at P.O. Box 50043, Arlington 22205. For more information about the Fund and its upcoming February 23 benefit, send an e-mail to or

It’s not enough to shake your head and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Open your heart and checkbook; that’s all it takes. Your gift means at least one child gets to see a doctor, gets needed medicine, instead of a tissue and aspirin. You take it for granted. Rest assured, they don’t.

Nick Penning is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

I Am a Man

Monday, February 5th, 2007

Imagine sitting along the Potomac — on the afternoon of August 28, 1963 — near the Memorial Bridge, which pierces into the heart of the Arlington plantation. You could probably hear the orations and ovations taking place on the other side of the river, just around the front of the Lincoln Memorial.

An historic “March on Washington” was reaching its crescendo that hot and sunny day with the arrival of a 34 year-old preacher from Georgia; a man mature beyond his years who helped transform the face of this nation.

You wonder if the traffic on the GW Parkway, which snakes along the shoulder of our county, had slowed, as it does on the night of the Fourth of July. Did people line the banks on our side and listen to young Martin Luther King declare, “I have a dream today”?

When he spoke of “freedom” and “free at last, free at last; thank God almighty, we’re free at last,” did we get it?

If you’re white, as am I, you may have puzzled, “What does he mean, ‘free at last’?” There is no slavery. People aren’t held against their will … at least they weren’t before the current Administration took office.

But I am not a black man. I did not live in a nation where it was considered ‘sport’ in some states to grab a black man from his home and drag him, with his wife and children watching, to the nearest big tree, where he was spit upon and summarily lynched by a hateful, bloodthirsty crowd.

Imagine; just try to imagine living in a world where you knew this could happen to you at any time and any place for any reason. What kind of life is that? Are you free to live “in pursuit of happiness”? Does your gut clench every night when you try to go to sleep and every morning when you raise into consciousness, wondering if this was the day the cowardly-hooded night-riders would burst into your life?

Move forward to today. In a training session at the office, the leader asks each person how they would describe themselves. “What is the one characteristic that defines you?” Each of us spoke of such things as belief, parent, spouse, or social class. But, when Joseph’s turn came, he simply said, “I am black. That is the one thing I am reminded of every day.”

Do we make that reality happen for the Joseph’s and the Mary’s and Lamar’s?

When you are seated in a restaurant, do you take a second look, when an African-American couple is shown to their booth? At the grocery store, do you find yourself looking into the shopping cart of an African-American mother, as she empties it on the belt? Do you wonder, “Is she going to use food stamps?”

And when you are walking along Columbia Pike or in Clarendon, do you feel uncomfortable if a loud bunch of young African-American youngsters or young adults approaches on the sidewalk?

Finally, when you are driving, if you’re white, you don’t live in fear that you might be stopped by the police, for whatever reason. You aren’t grabbed by the terror that a traffic stop might end with a night in jail, because you ‘look like’ someone who’s being sought for a crime.

Consider this: According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, African Americans make up12.7 percent of the US population and 48.2 percent of adults in state and federal prisons and local jails. Human Rights Watch reports, “black men [in 2000] were eight times more likely to be in prison than white men.”

This is an outrage! Add in the facts of intimidation of black voters in Florida and the car chases that have led, here in the Washington area, to the police killing of innocent African-Americans, and we get a tiny inkling of what it means to be black in 2007.

So, who is “free” in these United States? Take a moment to mentally “walk in the shoes” of a person of color, and then step into a store, a diner, or on a sidewalk. Only when we can see each other as the person in front of us, and not the person of color in front of us, will we have reached the time when we all are “free at last.” Let us work, truly work, to make that “dream” happen. Let us end the nightmare of soul-eating prejudice that lurks inside.

Nick Penning,, is an Arlington, Va., freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.