Of all the depravity human beings are capable of, few behaviors approach the moral repugnance of child abuse and neglect. Like so much ugliness, the physically and emotionally battered child is often shrouded from public view, kept hidden behind a curtain of perceived normalcy. Young lives suffering under the yoke of beatings, sexual exploitation, malnutrition and verbal abuse are easily associated with the unfortunate penury of a foreign land. In reality, such cases are part of a growing trend of destitution right here in Madison.

As was recently reported in the Capital Times, Madison has seen its poverty rate significantly outpace the national average in the past decade, reaching the point where one in two students in the Madison Metropolitan School District is considered “low income.” Twenty years ago, only one in five K-12 students met that qualification. Shockingly, in 2008, 776 of MMSD’s 25,000 students were essentially homeless.

It goes without saying that such conditions amount to a needling disgrace in the heart of a prosperous global superpower, and particularly in Madison, where indigence is juxtaposed with prodigious wealth. After all, it’s unambiguously clear that endemic poverty, especially in the United States, is no longer the product of resource scarcity, but rather the consequence of morally deficient institutions. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of activists and agitators, the injustice of these gaping inequalities is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

When poverty represents the premier determinant of child abuse, and fundamental change appears anything but imminent, potent social services remain the only effective bulwark against the most odious emanations of economic hardship. Thankfully, denizens of Dane County have access to some of the best social service infrastructure in the region.

Despite the challenges of tightening budgets and increasing need, Dane County is home to a variety of programs staffed by committed social workers and volunteers who have made this part of Wisconsin an oasis for families attempting to break into the middle class.

Year after year, Dane County, with the help of passionate community involvement, has managed to go above and beyond the social service standard set nationwide by communities of similar size. In addition to a comprehensive suite of traditional services, Dane County provides services not found anywhere else in the state, including educational funding for disabled youth, senior management services and collaborative efforts to strengthen families that reduce crime, abuse and delinquency.

As a whole, this constellation of support mitigates the worst vicissitudes of poverty and provides a foundation for the impoverished to achieve economic success and wellbeing. Augmenting these formidable institutions are budding grass-roots organizations that have exemplified the community’s commitment to improvement and social justice.

A good example of this ethic is the Dane County Time Bank, a community service sharing organization that is providing an alternative system of exchange geared toward the impecunious. Members of the Time Bank, exercising their individual strengths, exchange services with other members in money-less transactions.

Creative initiatives like this will be essential if Madison is to successfully curb its rising poverty rate and compensate for unavoidable cuts to social services. Still, it will be necessary to protect social services to the greatest extent possible, as Dane County’s distinctly adequate system is an essential part of what makes Madison an optimistic and comfortable place to live and go to school.

Madisonians are in a unique position. Our gracious hospitality has encouraged many refugees from less compassionate areas of the Midwest to flock to the shores of Lake Mendota and Monona. That so many should envy the social support and community we enjoy in Madison obligates us to redouble our efforts to provide the opportunities and services that distinguish Dane County from its surroundings. For most of us, that means volunteering in any of the myriad of organizations dedicated to community improvement.

Being part of something larger than oneself through volunteering won’t eliminate poverty, but it can have a substantial effect on those living in it. Too many children, through no fault of their own, have to live with all the stresses of scarcity. Preventing the isolation of those children is paramount to preventing abuse and providing them with the opportunities and support required for a happy life. At a time when budgets are being cut and social workers are expected to carry ever larger case loads, volunteer service assumes even greater importance.

Luckily, programs like Dane County (Court Appointed Special Advocate provide opportunities for sympathetic persons to ensure kids in Dane County remain safe and healthy. Volunteers are trained to advocate for a child in protective services, providing the focused monitoring that over-engaged social workers are unable to provide.

It is one thing to complain about inequality and quite another to do something about it. Although it’s perfectly reasonable to be angry at banks and elites over chronic injustices, love and compassion are the only emotions capable of meaningful change. Even students who might only be “passing through” should consider community involvement and volunteer work as practice for a useful life.

Sam Stevenson ([email protected]) is a graduate student in public health.