Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Matter of Definition

The young father stood in line in front of me with his two children--a boy, maybe 5, and a girl, maybe 7--at the WalMart pharmacy tonight. In front of them, a woman haggled with the clerk for a good ten minutes about her prescription.

Through it all, the children stood quietly, the boy at his father's right hand, the girl at her father's left. His hands rested lightly on their heads. Occasionally the father caressed his son's head, running his hand over the close-cropped straw colored hair, or he patted his daughter's mousy-brown hair pulled back in a series of bands and barrettes. Once in a while his hands dropped to one child's or the other's jacketed shoulder.

Their sweatpants and warm jackets had seen newer days; the father's lighter jacket bore a number of NASCAR decals. A tattoo swirling up his neck from his t-shirt became lost in the neat, but not trimmed, beard covering his cheeks and jaw. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a ball cap topped his head. Tenderly, but almost unconsciously, his clean, long-fingered hands--left ring finger banded in gold--assured his children their father was right there with them.

They didn't fidget.

They didn't fight.

They didn't poke each other or pester their father.

They stood quietly in line at WalMart and waited. And waited.

Once the little girl turned her head to see who was behind them and saw me watching them. I smiled, she gave me a solemn look with her gray eyes, then turned her head back around.

At one point, the father slid his hands down their arms and pulled them closer in a quick hug; then he released them, and his hands returned to their positions atop his children's heads.

It wasn't until a mother with two little girls took their place in line behind me and started talking about the Christmas parade they had just attended that the father and his children turned around.

"D'you go to the parade too?" he asked, and they chatted briefly about the lights and the chilly weather.

The children had turned around as well. Their thin faces looked a tad pinched. But then in this day of the obese child, perhaps I've just become accustomed to plump and so normal seems pinched. Light streaks of dirt rimmed the boy's mouth; the girl needed a tissue.

The father had no front teeth, his other teeth looked in questionable shape.

As the three spoke to the family behind us, their accents and grammar bespoke their rural Southern roots.

Today's Anniston Star carried a report on yet another study -- ever wonder who pays for these? Guess who's taxes do -- the headline of which said the majority of children in Alabama live in poverty. Of course, on reading the article, that wasn't quite the case. The study showed that, for the first time (since these kinds of statistics were kept, of course), the majority of Alabama school children are eligible for free or reduced lunches from the federally funded school lunch program. That means that @ 24% of Alabama's children live below the federally-defined poverty level and the rest live at up to 185% of that level.

So are they poor or not?


Depends on who you ask.

On how you define poverty.

On what program you're trying to fund or what agenda you're trying to push. Or whose votes you're currying.

The woman ahead of them finally got what she needed, and the father and his children stepped forward to the counter. The clerk found part of his order, but said another part was still being processed. He stepped back, his daughter with him, so I could move up and be served.

The boy remained where he was, not realizing his father and sister had moved. The father reached out and touched his son's shoulder. Immediately, the boy turned, his father motioned slightly, and the child stepped back by his father.

I thought of the parents I've watched who have raised their voices, motioned frantically, hissed through clenched teeth, glared, rolled their eyes, threatened, grabbed, yanked, and cursed while their children played 'you can't catch me' or rolled on the floor or whined or screamed or otherwise made life miserable for their parents, everyone else in the store . . . and for themselves.

Was the family ahead of me poor? I've no doubt they weren't rolling in dough. Insurance covered at least part of the father's prescription, but maybe it didn't cover his dental work.

The clerk handed me my order and I turned to leave. The woman behind me stepped up. The father stood to one side with his children, one hand on his son's head, the other hand on his daughter's shoulder.


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