Child Poverty in Pittsburgh

This op-ed was first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 10, 2017. 

We all know the clichés: Children are the future, children are innocent, children are precious in God’s sight, children can be anything they want to be. Many children in today’s world, however, have very limited opportunities. Because of poverty, war, disease, and human trafficking, their lives are anything but innocent. Children are precious to God, but millions of them are suffering. They drink contaminated water. Many don’t get enough to eat. They’re afflicted with diseases that could easily be prevented. Many die before reaching the age of five. They are raped, enslaved and forced to fight as soldiers.

On this National Children’s Day, we should recognize that many children in America also suffer from disabilities and disadvantages that prevent them from reaching their potential. Nationwide, about one in five children under the age of 18 lives below the poverty line. In Allegheny County, the rate is similar — 18.7 percent. Tragically, 55 percent of African-American children residing in the county live beneath the poverty line.

Growing up in poverty has very negative physical, intellectual and psychological impacts on countless children. Abundant research shows that the hardships poor children experience has harmful life-long consequences. Poverty affects the quality of their home environments and the education they receive in school, the amount and type of food they eat, how frequently they change residences and schools, and their self-image and emotional well-being.

Anxiety, unhappiness and dependency are common feelings among those who grow up in a destitute household. Poverty frequently contributes to children’s lack of self-discipline and low self-esteem and reduces their trust and empathy. Impoverished children often view life as hopeless and pointless. This pessimism prompts many to put forth little effort to get good grades, plan for the future or improve their lives.

Fortunately, many remarkable people and organizations are working in Allegheny County to improve the lives of children. Dozens of schools and congregations could be profiled, but let’s look at just four: Urban Impact, the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation, The Pittsburgh Project and the Pittsburgh Promise.

Since being founded by Ed and Tammy Glover in 1995, Urban Impact has helped at-risk children and youth and their families on the North Side. In 2016, 1,750 youth participated in its educational, athletic and performing-arts programs as well as its annual football clinic held in conjunction with members of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Urban Impact staff and volunteers help children succeed academically though tutoring, literacy training, math support programs and an eight-week summer day camp. The Options program helps juniors and seniors prepare to enter college, trade school, the work force, the military or the ministry after high school by providing mentoring and academic assistance. Over the past five years, 97 percent of the students enrolled in the program have graduated from high school.

Established in 1979, The Pittsburgh Kids Foundation brings together a diverse group of 200 youth workers serving with congregations and social agencies to share their resources to better aid children and young people in the greater Pittsburgh area. The PKF is one the largest and most effective youth collaboration networks in any American city. Led by Brad Henderson, who is also the chaplain for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Pirates, PKF trains youth workers and sponsors summer camps and weekend retreats that provide recreation, spiritual enrichment and character development for hundreds of Pittsburgh area children and youth. Reaching beyond the city, PFK sponsors about 20 trips each year to Haiti for youth pastors, youth groups and adults. These volunteers have worked energetically, especially since the 2010 earthquake, to provide clean water, improve sanitation, assist orphanages and build a medical clinic and two schools.

Founded in 1985 by Saleem Ghubril, The Pittsburgh Project is probably best known for its summer-work camp program that recruits youth groups from around the country to repair the houses of low-income Pittsburgh residents. After buying a former Catholic school building in Perry South in 1993, TPP also began offering services throughout the year—tutoring, summer camps and leadership training for neighborhood youth.

Today, its 26 staff members and its summer team of more than 50 college students operate afterschool and summer educational and enrichment programs, which are attended by hundreds of at-risk children and youth.

TPP’s programs aim to improve academic achievement, foster healthy relationships, strengthen students’ character, promote faith development and render service to others in the Pittsburgh area. Since 1985, TPP youth-development programs have empowered more than 17,000 young people through its “preventive and proactive asset-building program” and equipped more than 6,000 volunteers to tutor and mentor urban youth.

Mr. Ghubril also created the Pittsburgh Promise. Since 2008, this organization has worked to reform urban schools and provide scholarships to help send all eligible urban youth to colleges or trade schools. To date, the Pittsburgh Promise has furnished $102 million to fund the education of 7,333 Allegheny County high school graduates who have attended 131 different colleges and universities.

In “Suffer the Children: How We Can Improve the Lives of the World’s Impoverished Children,” my wife and I profile organizations, congregations and individuals who are enriching the lives of destitute and at-risk children around the world. We discuss a wide variety of ways through which concerned individuals can aid indigent children. As we celebrate National Children’s Day, let us commit ourselves to making life better for the vulnerable and victimized children in Allegheny County, as well as those around the world.


Gary SmithComment