America’s shame – children in poverty


    According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 42 percent of American children live in low-income homes and about a fifth live in poverty. It gets worse. The number of children living in poverty has risen 33 percent since 2000. For perspective, the child population of the country over all increased by only about 3 percent over that time. And, according to a 2007 Unicef report on child poverty, the U.S. ranked last among 24 wealthy countries.

    That is the 2nd paragraph of a powerful – and important – column by Charles Blow in today’s New York Times, Suffer the Little Children.  

    The last sentence of that paragraph, that we are last among 24 wealthy countries, should embarrass us.

    The next paragraph is brief, only one sentence:

    This is a national disgrace.

    Blow points out that while it is true a higher proportion of Black, Hispanic and Native American children fall in this category than do children of White or Asian background, the largest number by far are White children, as I have seen in my volunteering in dental clinics in Appalachia.

    He also points out that while our childhood poverty has been growing, that in Britain has not.  Since 1994 Britain’s childhood poverty has dropped from about 30% to only 12%, while ours – which briefly dropped a bit – is now approaching 1994 levels.  He points us at a  report released this month by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University and the London School of Economics.

    Blow describes the British approach as a 3-pronged attack.

    Let’s examine those three prongs.

    First, they established a welfare-to-work program and a national minimum wage (which, at about $9, leaves ours wanting) and instituted tax reductions and credits for low-income workers. They made work more attractive, and people responded. The report said, “Lone-parent employment increased by 12 percentage points – from 45 percent to 57 percent – between 1997 and 2008.”

    Let’s look at single parents here.   A 2004 report from the Center on Budget Priorities found that from 2000 to 2003 about 1/4 of the employment gains for single mothers made during the late 1990s disappeared.  

    The New York Times also has some fascinating data from OECD in this blog post, from which I note the following:

    1. In 2007 the percentage of children 0-14 in households with only a mother is similar in the US and Britain, more than 20%, while in a nation like Finland (cited here because of its performance on international education comparisons) is only about 5%.  

    2. In the same year, the percentage of children in single parent heads of households where the parent was not working were as follows:

        US       25%

        UK       50%

        Finland  30%

    Yet both Britain and Finland have far lower rates of childhood poverty than does the US.  Finland, as a Scandinavian nation, has a far stronger tradition of social welfare programs, so let’s concentrate on the UK, as does Blow.  

    He notes that the tax reductions and benefits in Britain were targeted at low income families. By contrast, we have seen an entirely different approach in the United States, one which has resulted in more middle class families slipping below the poverty line, and increasing concentrations of income and wealth in the very top brackets, at the same time as governments, federal and state, find themselves short of funds to help those in need.

    It is worth noting the the starting point is 1994.  That is before CLinton loss the Congress.  Yet despite that, his administration was able to ameliorate the problems of poverty for households headed by single moms and childhood poverty in general, but those gains were pretty much wiped out by the policies of the administration succeeding his.

    Second, they raised child welfare benefits, especially for families with small children, whether or not the parents worked.

       I could go and find how such benefits have dropped in our nation, but I think all here are aware of the problem.   Even now, we struggle to continue basic provisions of the social safety net, such as extending unemployment benefits given the severity of our great recession.  And for the 99ers, there is no help, meaning their children suffer even more.

    Third, they invested directly in the lives of young children with things like doubling paid maternity leave, providing universal preschool, assisting with child care and allowing parents of young children to request flexible work schedules.

    doubling paid maternity leave –  we fought for years just to get unpaid family and medical leave without losing one’s job.  We are still not close to universal preschools, child care is still a major expense.  And flexible work schedules?   Here if you ask for such you are likely to lose what employment you have.

    Unmentioned in Blow’s piece is the question of medical care.  Remember that the UK has the National Health Plan, which guarantees at least basic health care for all, including children in impoverished families.  We have had to struggle just to get SCHIP and Medicaid funded, and states – the level at which such services are provided – are not required to provide such to all who would otherwise be eligible.

    Blow concludes his article like this:  

    The British example shows that child poverty is not an intractable problem. If we can rise above the impulse to punish parents and focus on protecting children, we might replicate Britain’s success.

    the impulse to punish parents – especially parents of color, eh?  Because even though there are more poor whites than poor blacks, hispanics or native americans, those three groups have higher percentages.  Somehow it is easy for some politicians to blame them without addressing the issue of the continued racism that contributes to that poverty.

    Perhaps we should just make such politicians spend more time in places like those in Appalachia where I volunteer in dental clinics, where the income is the lowest in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where there are no jobs, where there are too few public services because the local communities lack the tax base to provide them.

    Oh wait, there are politicians, often Republican, at state and local levels who represent those areas and do not seem to care.  

    This nation should be ashamed.

    We have FINALLY raised the federal minimum wage in this nation.  It is now $7.25.   As Blow notes, that in the UK is about $9.00.   In a country whose cost of living for people is less, where the level of social services provided by the government is substantially higher.  

    Yes, it is true that our governments are strapped for funds.   We must have priorities.

    I cannot imagine any priority that should be higher than caring for our children.  They are the future of this nation.  

    If we do not care for them, we make clear our priorities, which should not merely embarrass us – those priorities should SHAME us.

    it is for reasons like this that I reject  a paradigm of American that is based on a notion of exceptionalism that say we are better than other nations.

    When it comes to caring for our children, we are far behind.

    Privatizing schools, breaking teachers unions, and imposing more tests will address NONE of this.  Those approaches, which seem to be about all the concern some will express for children of “others,” are the equivalent of offering an aspirin and a bandaid afer a limb has been savagely ripped off.

    I return to my title:

    America’s shame – children in poverty

    The only thing exceptional about America in this area is how unashamed we are about how badly we treat so many of our people, especially our youngest and most vulnerable.

    Let me end by quoting once again words of Hubert Humphrey:  

    It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

    The column by Charles Blow should serve as a start reminder, that for those who are in the dawn and the shadows, the children of poverty, this nation is failing that moral test.

    That should be America’s shame.

    Remember that as you celebrate the joys of the season.



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