Perspective: Children born poor have little margin for mistakes or bad decisions, regardless of race

Dec 28, 2023, 9:25 PM

Associated Press reporter Gary Fields poses for a portrait at a public park, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 20...

Associated Press reporter Gary Fields poses for a portrait at a public park, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

ALEXANDRIA, Louisiana (AP) —

Alfred King was lying in the parking lot of a small apartment building, mortally wounded when police in Alexandria, Louisiana got to the intersection of 12th and Magnolia streets shortly before 1:30 a.m., January 20.

The 34-year-old was the first fatal shooting of the year in the small city where I grew up and a large portion of my family lives.

Alfred’s death was similar to some I have covered since my first in 1985, a 38-year period when hundreds of thousands of people of all races and ethnicities have died violently in the U.S.

I know the details of too many of those incidents, from school shootings to a drug hit in a phone booth. I’ve heard the scream of a mom coming home from work and seeing her son in the street, encircled by yellow police tape. I’ve watched more than one mother gently touch the face of her teen-age son then close the lid on the casket.

Some stories are burned into memory, like the Washington, DC teenager who asked his mom to send him out of the region to escape the violence. He spent years away only to come home one weekend to plan his high school graduation party and be randomly stabbed to death by a stranger.

While I know some of those back stories, Alfred’s is the one I can personally trace from a decision made years ago by adults to gunshots near the end of a rundown street.

Alfred is my first cousin.

When he was 13 my wife and I tried to get legal custody of him after his mom was murdered, but his guardian said no.

I think about him often and the decision that kept him from reaching escape velocity, the things you need to go right to lift the weight of your birth circumstances off of you. Those include family, education, jobs, friends, neighborhoods, adult interventions, hard work and good luck.

We say people can be whatever they want to be. To a degree that is true, but moving through the socioeconomic levels of America’s economics-based caste system is like the Apollo moon missions of my youth. Millions of parts have to work perfectly to get you there, and back.

According to “ Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective,” part of the groundbreaking Opportunity Insights project based at Harvard, only 2.5% of Black kids born to a parent or parents in the bottom quintile move to the top quintile of household income. For white kids, the figure is 10.6%. What is more likely for both is they will stay in the poorest quintile or at best, move up one level to lower middle class. For white kids, that figure is 53.4% and for Black kids, 75.4%.

The focus on the statistics tends to be on the racial disparity. I see the disparity, but what I also see is that Black or white, less than half of the kids born poor move up much. Even if they make it one step, a car repair, a missed day at work or a high utility bill can begin a downward spiral.

And there are millions born into that world, although we treat it like a moral failing. One measure of Census data shows more than 10.7 million children younger than 18 lived below the poverty level in 2022, and that figure is undoubtedly higher because millions more lived in places where the incomes couldn’t be determined.

Millions of young people live in homes where social security payments, WIC, SNAP and TANF, various food, nutrition and income assistance programs, are the order of the day.

Poverty isn’t the purview of one race. Neither is violent death. Socioeconomics is a good predictor for victimhood and criminal justice involvement, as well as deficient healthcare and educational outcomes.

Alfred came into the world on the bottom economic rung and when he was 13 the critical decision was made that likely kept him there. His mom had been shot to death months before in Alexandria. My uncle, his dad, had done what he could but was broken down from working hard labor jobs, usually several at once and was living on limited income himself. He couldn’t promise his son much future.

The first time I met him Alfred was a thin, gangly, very shy kid who kept his head down, avoiding eye contact. He spoke softly and slowly and was the target of bullies.

I don’t remember him smiling — ever. Around me, at least, his nature was melancholy.

For Alfred, I was the cousin who had a charmed life. The truth is, for reasons I will never comprehend, I had nearly everything go right.

We love to talk about people pulling themselves up by their boot straps. A lot of people contributed to my boots and showed me how to use the straps. There were teachers, friends, family, neighbors and luck stirred together. That mixture was added to the foundation, a ninth-grade drop out unwed mom who truly valued education who married a good man who helped her raise me.

Alfred’s grades were not good. Something about the way he looked at me made me ask when he’d last had an eye exam. One optometrist visit and a pair of glasses later he could see the blackboard.

My wife and I decided then. We wanted to bring him back to Maryland where we live. We wanted legal custody so my work benefits could cover him. We also wanted to be able to make decisions on his behalf without unforeseen bureaucratic or legal barriers that might arise.

My now dead uncle said yes but his message to me was Alfred’s now late-grandmother said no. Alfred was getting a government check of some sort. I don’t know how much it paid or what program it was. This year I asked the Social Security Administration what it might have been and there were a couple possibilities. As a minor he could have been eligible for benefits because of his dead mom. It also might have been Supplemental Security Income for some health problem he had.

In a place where minimum wage was $5.15 an hour at the time and people lived on the edge financial ruin, it did not matter how much, or for what. If you are born into a certain economic class everything goes towards basics: food, rent, utilities, clothing.

Alfred stayed in Louisiana.

Over the years he reached adulthood and when I came home I would give him what cash I had, especially when he had kids of his own. By then he had a criminal record but he treated me the same and he checked on my mom – Aunt Shirley.

I can’t and won’t judge the decision that was made for the 13-year-old. I sadly understand the necessity of it. But, I can wonder what would have happened if we had gotten him. I can’t say for certain everything would have been okay but I believe we could have given him more options to a different path. What I want remembered is changing his path would also have changed the lives of anyone he may have wronged too.

There are abandoned houses and empty lots in the neighborhood where he lived and died. I have been there multiple times this year.

I have seen a few young kids there, born into circumstances they didn’t ask for, lives without margin for errors or bad luck. I pray that for them and the millions of kids like them, regardless of race or ethnicity, that everything goes right and they reach escape velocity.


Gary Fields, an award-winning veteran journalist, writes about democracy for The Associated Press.

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Perspective: Children born poor have little margin for mistakes or bad decisions, regardless of race