The Ripple Effect and Child Poverty

rippleYou remember, don’t you? You’re that twelve-year old kid on a hot summer day. You and your friends are exploring that lake or pond or stream. And you pick up a handful of jagged rocks and toss them into the water. Almost magically it happens. That rock hits the surface, plunges in and then in its aftermath, those small waves emanate from the center and seemingly reach out forever. The ripple effect.

Physicists have taken that childhood memory and applied it to the very workings of the universe talking about “the precise progressions of natural bodies.” Social scientists have applied the ripple effect to broad social policies from criminal justice to family structures.

I thought of the ripple effect last week when new data released from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that child poverty persists in Kentucky. In fact, more than one in four kids live in poverty and Kentucky shares the sad distinction of having the 6th highest child poverty rate in the nation.

The issue, of course, is not so much the data, as troubling as that is. Rather, it is our response to the data.

There are folks who understandably throw up their hands and essentially concede the issue. “It’s just Kentucky being Kentucky,” they say.

There are also the groups that peddle false hopes of silver bullet solutions. “All we need is fundamental and comprehensive reform of this or that and the issue would be solved,” they say. And the music they play gives regular folks false hopes and provides elected leaders a “cop out” to do nothing.

Instead of merely giving up or pushing unlikely reforms, what if we took advantage of the ripple effect?

A state Earned Income Tax Credit alone would not solve poverty in the Commonwealth. But I bet that hard working, low-income families would be blessed with a refund check of several hundred dollars. They could fix the car, buy their kids some new shoes, or buy that new refrigerator. Ripples.

Tackling the predatory climate that still besets this state alone will not solve poverty. But if we can curb the payday lending traps, that family – caught in a pinch – may be able to avoid falling into the debt trap that has caught so many Kentucky families in its web. Ripples.

A commitment to micro-enterprise loans alone will not solve poverty. But what if that low income Kentuckian with a creative dream and relentless drive received a little seed capital? And then that product began production or that service was launched. And from that nascent beginning grew a real economic opportunity. Ripples.

I can go on in the ways we could help:

  • Increasing eligibility for child care.
  • Better financial literacy for our high school and post-secondary students.
  • Child savings accounts.

All of these would create ripples.

If we are going to tackle poverty, we need tenacity for the long haul. But we also need the pragmatism to get some early wins. Those early wins can build momentum. Those early wins will make a difference in the lives of Kentucky families. And those early wins can cause a ripple effect. And who knows just how far those ripples may go?

We must try. We must act. Kentucky kids need us to tackle poverty.

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