mother-son-prison-incarcerated-mothers

Shutterstock

Mother’s Day has come and gone another year. But for millions of families, there was little celebration to be had.

It’s a sad story that can be told in numbers.

This year, 120,000 moms in this country didn’t go to brunch because they were incarcerated — many of them simply because they couldn’t afford bail. Of those, about 9,000 were pregnant.

In fact, even as the number of men behind bars has finally begun to decrease, the number of incarcerated women has continued to rise. As of 2016, the U.S. incarcerated women at a rate 8 times higher than it did in 1980. In state prisons, the vast majority of women — 75 percent of them — are there for nonviolent offenses.

Another 50,000 or so moms missed Mother’s Day because their juvenile children are behind bars. That’s the highest anywhere in the world.

Even larger is the number of families imprisoned by poverty.

About 16 million women didn’t receive candy or flowers because they struggle below the poverty line and their kids need new shoes and fuller bellies. Households led by single women with children experienced poverty at a rate of over 35 percent in 2016, hitting single mothers of color disproportionately hard. More broadly, nearly four in ten children will experience at least one year in poverty during their childhood, and one in five are food insecure.

More starkly still, nearly 60,000 moms missed breakfast in bed because their families are homeless.

At the same time, tens of thousands of children in immigrant families couldn’t celebrate their mothers because their families have been torn apart by deportations. BuzzFeed published a video this spring showing U.S. Border Patrol officers arresting undocumented single mother Perla Morales-Luna. She’s heard screaming as they rip her away from her crying children. The New York Times reports, meanwhile, that at least 700 kids have been forcibly removed from their parents at the border.

When the celebration of the love between a mother and her children is denied to millions in this country, I believe we can say our moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction.

The silver lining is that a dynamic new movement is rising to reset it.

This month, a new Poor People’s Campaign — co-led by the civil rights leader Reverend William Barber — launched a 40-day campaign of folks organizing, marching, lobbying, and getting arrested for non-violent acts of civil disobedience in dozens of states. They’re hoping to bring attention to mothers and children in poverty, among other affected populations.

This year’s campaign is buoyed by research, too. The Souls of Poor Folk, an audit of research I helped compile at the Institute for Policy Studies, provides facts and figures on the stark realities faced by the 140 million people in the United States who survive as poor or low-income. It includes the voices of affected people, who tell their stories and combat false narratives that vilify people who endure the effects of an economy that’s fundamentally stacked against them.

One of those people is Callie Greer, a mother from Montgomery, Alabama. Callie’s daughter Venus died in her arms because of a breast cancer that went undetected for months due to lack of health insurance — in a state where lawmakers refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Now Greer travels the country sharing her story, rallying others to action. “We’re ringing a bell, and people will hear it,” she said.

The report includes stories of other mothers who’ve rallied against juvenile detention and helped expose lead poisoning in children.

“It is a spiritually impoverished nation that permits infants and children to be the poorest Americans,” Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman once said. That’s why we need information and toolkits to change the moral direction of this country — and help pave the way for a country that values women, mothers, and children in ways that matter beyond a hallmark greeting.

Karen Dolan directs the Criminalization of Race and Poverty Project.