Rediscovering Government

Inequality Begins at Birth in America

Blog Post by: Jeff Madrick , on June 9, 2014

Last week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan announced another progress report hearing on the so-called war on poverty.

The whole exercise is, of course, a bit of a sham.

Ryan’s own budget slashes $3.1 trillion–that’s trillion with a ‘t’–from programs that target low-income Americans.

Indeed, Ryan’s hearings do little more than offer up a new set of reasons for Republicans’ one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions: Tax cuts and lax regulations for the rich coupled with spending cuts for the poor.

Meanwhile, those of us who are genuinely serious about taking on poverty won’t be paying much attention to Ryan’s hearings. The grown-ups will be gathered a few blocks away discussing child poverty.

Our conference, “Inequality Begins at Birth: Child Poverty in America,” brings together economists, policy experts, and child poverty activists to discuss solutions for helping the nation’s most vulnerable.

U.S.Senator Cory Booker, who has made eradicating child poverty a centerpiece of his work in the Senate, will deliver the keynote address.

Indeed, American children are the poorest demographic group in the nation. One out of four children under age six live in poverty. Overall, the United States has the highest child poverty level in the rich world.

Let that sink in.

The richest of all nations—the one that preaches the virtues of opportunity for all—allows an unconscionable proportion of its young to start way back of the pack.

In addition, nearly one in two children under 18 live below double the poverty line (about $47,000 today), an income just barely adequate to meet basic needs, and completely inadequate in many localities.

Childhood Poverty Is a National Scourge

Additionally, the victims of childhood poverty, as with most diseases, are not responsible for what has befallen them.

Evidence gathered over the last ten years increasingly shows how damaged these lives are. Malnourished and psychologically traumatized by family instability and constant moving, poor children’s brains are often neurologically underdeveloped, with cognitive abilities measured as lagging as early as one year old.

Studies now convincingly show the effects of child poverty have serious long-term consequences. Such children do poorly later in school, have lower high school graduation rates, and often wind up in poverty and on welfare as adults. They suffer from chronic diseases, such as asthma and attention disorders.

In what is now a vicious cycle, they pass poverty on to their children. They are also costly to the American people, because they are often unable to become skilled workers and instead eat up a significant chunk of social spending.

To a nation so conscious of workers' skills, these children are destined to become an enormous wasted resource.

Education is widely considered the pathway to reducing inequality. But in America, inequality really begins at birth.

Children born into poverty quickly fall behind cognitively, are prone to disease, are often emotionally traumatized, and are not even prepared for preschool—the current favorite policy solution.

Two Myths About Child Poverty

Why do we as a nation pay so little national attention to child poverty?

One persistent myth is that it's the fault of parents, who are lazy people, living on the public dime. Yet, a high proportion of children in poverty have parents who work full-time.

Too many Americans blame child poverty on moral laxity, especially among black Americans. In actuality, though, about one in five poor children are white, and millions more grow up near poverty.

Moreover, one in three black men born in 2001 will go to jail at some point, a racially-discriminatory travesty.

A second myth holds that fighting poverty is futile. What, after all, can government do about poverty?

Since the Great Recession, the poverty level for families seems intractable, at around 16 percent of the population.

Moreover, while there are dozens of well-meaning and highly competent advocacy organizations that try to deal with the result of child poverty, hardly a dent has been made in the national statistics.

Poverty is a leaky boat. You can bail water out but more keeps coming in.

The belief that government cannot constructively address the issue and dramatically reduce child poverty, however, is a big lie.

In 1969, the level of poverty for those under age 18 was kept at 14 percent, due to the passage of Medicaid and other new social programs. In the 1980s, it rose sharply to 20 percent, and stands at 22 percent today. (Similarly, elderly poverty was sharply reduced, from well above 30 percent in the 1950s to under 10 percent today, by Social Security and Medicare.)

Child poverty has worsened markedly since the victories of the 1960s and 1970s, as the incomes for the bottom 25 percent of American earners have been dismal. Jobs are just not there; even for those who do have jobs, wages are low.

Despite the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child tax credit, and food stamps, social programs have not kept up with the poor performance of our economy and a troubled educational system.

A Multi-Part Solution

Paul Ryan would have us believe the solution to all of our poverty problems is simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker.

But in the real world, there are no quick-fix answers. In fact, there is much to be done.

First of all, America needs jobs and higher wages. Rapid economic growth is a priority.

A federal increase in the minimum wage to $10.10, as has been proposed by Congress and the president, would be highly beneficial to impoverished Americans.

It would raise a full-time minimum wage worker’s pay to $20,200, from $14,500 at today’s rate. Minimum wages can also be raised at the state level.

Additionally, tax credits can be expanded, as president Obama has proposed, and children's health care coverage and home aid can be expanded.

Further, we should give cash allowances to poor families with children. 

What is it like for a one-year-old to be hungry almost every day of his or her life? I would love to know. But they can’t tell us. Many know no other life.

But we do have an imagination. Hunger is dreadful and no doubt constantly painful. And we now know conclusively that it has long-term implications for poor children, long into adulthood.

We’ve got to stop the depredations we inflict on our youngest children, including our newborns.

Now, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academic Pediatric Association is forming a task force to confront child poverty head on. 

It’s time to attack the first source of social injustice and indecency in America—the problem that makes a mockery of equal opportunity claims. 

If you’re looking for more partisan posturing, then by all means, check out Rep. Ryan’s hearings in the Cannon building next Tuesday.

Alternately, tune in to our webcast if you’re more interested in serious solutions to child poverty than you are in political theater.

Tags: tax cuts, spending cuts, poverty, paul ryan, jobs, inequality, food stamps, child tax, child poverty,

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