It's not Polite to Talk About Poverty

New Mexico has the highest child poverty rate in the country -- something that Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph's Children believes people ought to know. The Albuquerque non-profit is raising awareness through a campaign that parodies the state's successful tourism advertisements.

I could imagine many responses to the "New Mexico Truth" campaign: communities coming together to discuss better ways to support children and families; a surge of donations to human service organizations; a legislature propelled into action. I could not imagine the statement that came out of Governor Susana Martinez's office:

This is nothing more than a petty, cynical attempt to hijack an ad campaign that showcases the beauty, diversity and wonders of New Mexico -- one that is bringing tourists and revenue to communities large and small -- in order to score cheap political points.

The New Mexico Hospitality Commission is also circulating a petition to denounce the ads. "They ripped off the New Mexico True brand to push its single interest, which has nothing to do with tourism," the petition complains.

Thirty-five percent of the state's children are living in households where there is no secure income. New Mexico should be objecting to that horrible reality -- not the design of a few ads.

New Mexico is hardly alone in its polite silence about child poverty. One in five American children lives in poverty on any given day, with many more being affected over the course of their childhoods. Our country's infant mortality is the highest of any western democracy. Babies have a better chance of survival if they are born in Cuba or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It is inhumane to allow children to grow up deprived of their basic needs, of good health care or of educational opportunity. It is also contrary to everyone's interest, because we need the next generation to be able to compete in the global economy. So why aren't presidential candidates fielding questions every day about child poverty? Why isn't this a national emergency?

Pediatrician Renée Boynton-Jarrett answered that question with eloquence and insight:

It strikes me that as a society we have accepted the notion that the challenges parents face are all "just part of raising a child" -- that it's not imperative for all children to have access to the high-quality early care that they need to succeed.

We place all the responsibility (and blame) on parents' shoulders. Running a non-profit that helps infants and toddlers, I am frequently lectured about parents who "shouldn't have babies that they can't afford." There is little sympathy for the family pushed into poverty by catastrophic illness, a layoff or a system that does not pay a living wage for a hard day's work. Every struggling family has a story. But it is easier to invent our own scenario -- one where we are not compelled to act. Anyone who challenges that scenario challenges our own comfort and creates tension. We find it in very bad taste.

So if you talk about child poverty in New Mexico, you are somehow disloyal to the state. (Critics are charging that the New Mexico Truth campaign will scare away tourists.) If you talk about poverty in America, you are challenging treasured beliefs about the American Dream.

We need to stop shooting the messenger whenever someone raises this issue. Child poverty is a massive problem in the United States that causes misery in the families directly affected and that threatens the economic security of us all. Like most problems, it can be solved with dedicated effort -- but first we must be allowed to talk about it.