February 2000 was the year I started working at IMPACT, local nonprofit. Because I write grant requests, I’d regularly pore over data about the people – many of them poor and struggling - who reached out to us for help. We gather a lot of information about them – things like the ZIP codes where they live, the kind of help they’re asking for, how many people are asking for help, and a bunch of other quantifiable information.
To be honest, I hadn’t connected the dots between the data and the lives connected to them until I was reviewing an Unmet Needs report for a proposal I was writing nearly ten years ago, when I was a new mom to five-month-old GeeGee. (Unmet Needs are things that people request, but there’s nothing available to fulfill the request.) On the list of unmet needs were about 1,700 requests for baby formula and baby food. Which meant that 1,700 times, there were some moms who didn’t have what they needed to feed their child. Or children.
That’s when the dots, the numbers and the lives connected for me. I stared glassy-eyed at the report and thought about GeeGee: What if she was one of the at least 1,700 kids whose mom couldn’t feed her. What if I had been that mom who couldn’t feed her hungry child? Seriously: what would I do?
There’s been some distance between those baby years and now. And to a certain extent, the connection between the dots, the data and the lives faded somewhat to me. Theoretically, I knew more people – more families -- are struggling than there were ten years ago, and the data we have at IMPACT makes that perfectly clear. Now the callers’ ZIP codes aren’t just from Milwaukee’s inner city. They’re also from the suburbs – Franklin, Oak Creek, Ozaukee – places where “poor people don’t exist.”
Maybe I had just grown used to the data. Maybe I had become too busy planning birthdays, holidays and extracurriculars for the data to shock, move or touch me.
But then I happened upon a program called “Poor Kids.” In it, kids talk about how they live with poverty, what it feels like, and things that worry them. Things like high gas prices, how expensive fruits and vegetables are, how storage facilities work when a family's been evicted…things kids should never have to worry about. One of the interviewed kids was 9 years old.
Just like my GeeGee.
Which got me thinking: even though our family isn’t at either extreme -- poor or rich -- we’re comfortable. But we’re just as vulnerable to poverty as these families – as these “poor kids”…and I think most families are. In fact, the homeless rate among families has gone up 60% in the past few years.
It’s hard to see families teetering on the brink. But sometimes, I think watching programs like this is a good exercise to help everyone remember that lives of families, lives of kids – are behind the dots and data.
At least it was for me.