|By Marie P. Grady|
On days when freshly fallen snow covers bare trees, when the biting winter wind finds its way between the collar of my coat and the nape of my neck, I sometimes think of her.
Pushing a baby carriage over speed bumps made of snow on a Holyoke sidewalk, she would arrive every evening with a warm smile and an infant bundled up against the cold. She was there to pick up a young son who was being tutored at the Homework House in Holyoke, an afterschool program where I volunteered last year.
To say that she was not a soccer mom is an understatement. There was no warm van waiting. No money for a cab. No husband at home caring for the baby. Just a young mother who enrolled her son in this program to give him a better chance.
Maybe it is because of her that I was not surprised recently to learn that the percent of school children living in poverty has grown significantly over the last five years in Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee. The story in The Republican, based on U.S. Census Bureau data, reported that 33.2 percent of school children ages five to 17 in Springfield were living below the federal poverty level in 2005, up from 27.2 percent in 2000.
The 2005 poverty rate in the Connecticut River Valley was highest in Holyoke, where 39.7 percent of children were living on the edge while 20.3 percent were living in poverty in Chicopee.
The news about the rising urban poverty rate competed that week with the musings of political pundits on whether Hillary Rodham Clinton's rare show of emotion during the grueling New Hampshire primary contributed to her victory. The fact is that this kind of poverty should make every one of the presidential candidates cry.
While all of the candidates are preaching the mantra of change, the real change that should come from this election is a plan to end poverty as we know it. And that plan must include making literacy and education a priority.
Literacy programs like the Homework House, started by the Sisters of St. Joseph and supported by the City of Holyoke and its schools, are a start.
In its first year, the program helped children advance at least one grade level in many subjects. The program, staffed with volunteers, also helps provide a warm haven to children who live in the poorest community in the state.
For some, including the many foster children in Holyoke, it may be the most secure home they've ever known.
But such programs are facing a rising tide of need and a diminishing pool of resources. In Massachusetts, one of the most affluent communities in the world, government funding covers just about five percent of the need for literacy services.
Nationwide, funding for federal Even Start family literacy programs was slashed to the bone last year by the Bush administration.
Meanwhile, a literacy gap feeds a cycle of poverty that continues to choke our cities. In Springfield, a panel led by the United Way is studying this scourge and ways to end it.
The problem, fueled by a high rate of teen pregnancies, is deep rooted and complex. But it is ignored at our peril.
Not too long ago, Hurricane Katrina bared the underbelly of poverty in America to the world. But, in our own backyard, the City of Holyoke's entrenched poverty rates surpass those of hurricane victims in New Orleans, according to a report released last year by Mass Inc. and the Brookings Institution.
So, the next time a candidate for the nation's highest office emotes, I hope it is about the plight and the pluck of a poor young mother, who battles wind and weather to make sure her son gets the extra chance he needs.
The candidates are right. It is time for a change, and the sooner the better.
Marie P. Grady is director of the Literacy Works Project for the Hampden County Regional Employment Board. She can be reached at 755-1367 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.