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At a glance: United States of America

Marcell's story: Growing up in poverty in the United States of America

‘The State of the World’s Children 2011 – Adolescence: An Age of Opportunity,’ UNICEF’s flagship report, focuses on the development and rights of more than a billion children aged 10 to 19 worldwide. This series of stories, essays and multimedia features seeks to accelerate and elevate adolescents’ fight against poverty, inequality and gender discrimination.

By Bob Coen

CAMDEN, USA, 29 March 2011 – Growing up in the one of the most dangerous cities in the United States of America, Marcell Jenkins, 12, never ventures more than a few blocks from his home alone.

VIDEO: UNICEF's Bob Coen reports on the struggle facing Marcell, an adolescent growing up in Camden, New Jersey, one of the most dangerous cities in the United States of America.  Watch in RealPlayer


“You have to think that your life is on the line every day,” he explains. “This kid got shot. They might have just been in the way. You could be in the crossfire and get killed because you were outside at the wrong time.”

Camden, once a thriving industrial city in the state of New Jersey, has been in decline for decades. Today it is per capita one of the poorest cities in the USA with high unemployment and crime rates.

In recent years, Camden has become a haven for drug-dealers who openly ply their trade on the streets. To make matters worse, nearly half the city’s already beleaguered police force was recently laid off due to budget cuts.

Marcell’s own life has been shaped by these problems. “My parents were in the street on drugs and they weren’t fit to be parents, so I had to come and live with my grandmother,” he says.

© UNICEF video
Marcell, 12, is growing up in Camden, New Jersey, one of the most dangerous cities in the United States of America.

Deep-seated problems

Disadvantaged children growing up in the industrialized world are the focus of the latest study by UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre. ‘Report Card 9 – The Children Left Behind’ presents a first overview of inequalities in child well-being for 24 of the world’s richest countries.

Three dimensions of inequality were examined: material well-being, education, and health. The report argues that children deserve the best possible start in life, early experience can cast a long shadow, and children are not to be held responsible for the circumstances into which they are born.

Like so many parents and care-givers, Marcell’s 76-year-old grandmother, who receives limited government assistance, struggles to give her grandson every opportunity to succeed in a very challenging environment. Camden has a 70 per cent high school dropout rate, with only 13 per cent of students managing to pass the state's proficiency exams in mathematics.

“I constantly worry about my grandmother because she’s done so much for me,” he says. “Every night I go in and give her a good night kiss and tell her, ‘I love you’, because I don’t know if she is going to wake up tomorrow.”

The UNICEF report also highlights the impact of poverty on the health of children due to a poor diet and lack of exercise. USA, Italy and Hungary have the highest levels of bottom-end inequality in children’s health.

© UNICEF video
Marcell lives with his grandmother in Camden, New Jersey. He is struggling to provide himself a better future in a city blighted by high crime, unemployment and school dropout rates.

Poverty and its impact

“I’m on medicine. I weigh as much as a grown man, maybe even more and I have health problems,” explains Marcell. “It’s harder to eat healthy than to eat junk, because junk is always going to be there.

He adds that one year he went on a diet at school and his grandma had to pay $100 extra than she usually did for his lunches in order for the school to buy healthier ingredients.

“They’re watching me, because I am borderline diabetic and they’re trying to keep me out of trouble,” he says, “and that is why now I’m trying to get more active with my friends.”

By drawing attention to the depth of disparities facing disadvantaged children, UNICEF’s report argues that ‘falling behind’ is a critical issue not only for millions of individual children, but for the economic and social future of their nations.

“As I get older I don’t know exactly what I would like to be,” says Marcell, looking over the post-industrial wasteland of his hometown and the train tracks that lead to the gleaming high-rise towers of neighbouring Philadelphia. “I could go and be a very smart young man, but make one mistake and become a homeless man. So I’m just trying to see what life deals me.”



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