Douglas MacKinnon: Death by poverty -- how the poorest among us pay the ultimate price

Death by poverty.

I thought about that everyday reality in the United States when reading the beyond tragic story of a poor family of six recently killed by a fire in Harlem.

An incredibly heroic and hardworking 45-year-old single mother by the name of Andrea Pollidore, her 32-year-old stepson, and four of her children from the ages of 3 to 11, all perished in a rapidly moving fire.


It was reported that Pollidore’s 11-year-old daughter Nakaira often cooked meals for her exhausted mom and the rest of the family and may have been trying to do so when oil on the stove ignited.

Unless you have actually lived the life, almost no one can imagine the unbearable struggles and hope-destroying reality of that everyday existence for America’s poverty-stricken citizens.

How many “death by poverty” victims like Andrea Pollidore and her family will it take for us to finally open our eyes and do something about it?

I did live the life. My entire childhood was spent trying to overcome abject poverty, massive dysfunction, and homelessness. By the time I was 17 years of age, we had been evicted from 34 homes.

Part of that existence was dealing with a fire in our home.

When I was six years old, my eight-year-old brother, Jay, three-year-old sister Janice and I were consigned to our latest home in the dead of a New England winter by our alcoholic parents. A home with no heat, no electricity, and no phone.

One night, while the three of us tried to sleep on a single mattress on the floor of the bedroom we shared, I noticed a yellow light flickering out in the hallway. My brother and I got up to investigate and discovered that one of our passed-out parents had knocked a lit candle over and set the sheets and their mattress on fire in their bedroom.

While Jay worked to drag them out of the burning bed, I ran to get a plastic bucket to fill it with water to put out the growing flames.

When all was done, neither one of my parents even came to, so we left them on the floor where we had dragged them.

This is not about my life other than to illustrate that, more often than not, massive dysfunction — be it alcohol, drug, mental-illness related, or the abandonment by a parent — is the partner-in-crime to a neverending reality in which innocent children pay the highest price of all.

Many parts of the United States have finally emerged from another brutal winter. And it is winter in the coldest states and cities which sees so much “Death by Poverty.”

Hardworking parents and single moms like Andrea Pollidore are many times forced to make horrible choices because of poverty. Pay the rent and buy food for the family, or pay for heating oil or the electricity.

Often, money for heat and electricity goes for food and rent. In their place comes dangerous space-heaters, candles, or gas ovens running as long as possible.

Choices which can and do cost the lives of those simply trying to keep their children warm.

Again, if you have not lived the life, you have no idea and no real understanding.  None.

And yet, tens of thousands of your fellow Americans — including countless children — are forced to live this life and fight to survive, every single day.

Come summer and record-breaking heat waves, we learn of poor, especially elderly Americans, who pass away because they could not pay for air conditioning or electricity.

This is not about something for nothing. This is not about bailing out “freeloaders” or “welfare cheats.” This is about a class of Americans — thousands upon thousands — who get up every morning, do the right thing, work two or even three low-paying jobs, and still can’t deal with crippling rent payments, the cost of food, day care, or life.

And that life includes dealing with bad to horrible schools, bad to horrible or no health care, and bad to horrible to dangerous housing.

They are out there simply trying to make it to the next day — and yet most Americans will never see them nor remotely understand their plight.


For most Americans — and most politicians who every two, four, or six years fill their mouths with empty promises and empathy — this hard-working, poverty-stricken class of fellow citizens simply does not exist.

How many “death by poverty” victims like Andrea Pollidore and her family will it take for us to finally open our eyes and do something about it?