Poverty Among Us

“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.

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