In 1962, Michael Harrington published The Other America
, which awakened America to the extent of poverty in a nation that at the time thought the postwar affluence had solved such problems. Harrington presented persuasive evidence that at least 25 percent of Americans were poor, and it shocked a nation that thought of itself as newly affluent. A middle class was flourishing by the 1960s. Harrington’s book and the buoyant economy combined to raise the American people’s sense of obligation and commitment to decency. Under President Lyndon Johnson, the country adopted a range of generous programs for the poor, including children, and people of color. This “War on Poverty,” though hardly as bold as it could have been, succeeded far more than its later deriders claimed.
But the child poverty rate in America today is 20 to 25 percent as I measure it, and arguably higher, and it has produced no wave of response vaguely similar to Johnson’s more than fifty years ago. My purposes here are to document the scourge of child poverty, the many ways it damages children and limits their possibilities, to make clear the immense irresponsibility of the world’s richest nation to tolerate basically the highest child poverty rates in the developed world, and to recommend what should be done about it.
There are roughly 13 million officially poor children in America, nearly one in five. If properly measured it would be closer to one in four, and with more honest assumptions more than one in three. In France and Germany only around one in ten children are poor, and by a more stringent test. In the Nordic nations, only one in thirty children are poor. Child poverty is lower in these nations not because the economy produces fewer poor people but because social policies are directed at supporting the poor more generously and efficiently than in the United States.
Our struggling children lack material goods and services, including minimally decent shelter and healthcare. The level of material deprivation, or hardship
, as analysts call it, is much higher than the government-reported poverty rate. Some analysts argue that child poverty is lower because parents don’t remember and don’t fully report income from government programs on government surveys. Others note that many people underreport earned income. Even with underreporting, poverty rates would be higher than in almost any other rich nation. Moreover, according to the latest studies, well over one in three American children live in a household with a significant deprivation: inadequate food, lack of access to medical care due to its cost, seriously overcrowded housing, and so on.
These children are well aware of their poverty, and they live not merely in deprivation but also in shame. They see themselves as irredeemable outsiders. They watch television and observe how others live; they see movie ads even if they can’t afford to go to the movies. They flip through sophisticated comic books, which they cannot buy. Debilitating pessimism is thrust upon them at a young age. When middle-class Americans scoff at poor kids because parents buy them the latest expensive sneakers and iPhones, they are unaware that these kids demand these things not to show off but mostly to belong, a deep need of which they are mostly deprived.
I will argue that poor children have many requirements, but above all they need money.
The distress and consequences of child poverty are too often ignored. Reducing child poverty is more consequential than reducing poverty among other groups due to its longer term effects. Overwhelming evidence makes clear that poverty results in lasting damage to poor children compared to middle-income children. Their cognitive abilities are seriously reduced, their emotions are destabilized, and their health is compromised over a wide range of debilities. They often live in physical and emotional pain. Infant mortality is higher in the United States than in other rich nations. Such studies are adjusted for race, ethnicity, and parental education to isolate the effects of low income itself.
Child poverty was hardly mentioned in the 2016 presidential primary battles by Democrats or Republicans, nor in the general election campaign. Some Democratic presidential candidates are only now beginning to formulate policies aimed at incomes below the median—below the halfway point of workers’ wages. But these policies, given stagnating incomes for more than a generation, typically don’t go far enough.
Such damage has measurable longer-term consequences for the productivy of poor children when they become adults, their health costs, and the costs of crime. A stunning recent analysis finds that GDP is up to $1 trillion lower as a result of child poverty, or more than 5 percent. Many analysts agree this is a reasonable, if as I say shocking, number. It is mostly due to reduced labor productivity of workers, higher health costs, and the costs of crime, including incarceration. Child poverty affects all of us.
The American social policy system of the last forty years emphasizes work for parents through income tax credits, which are not the best way to reduce poverty. Instead, I will advance a position embraced by a burgeoning number of academics: America should be distributing substantial cash grants to all families with children without conditions. Better-off families will have much of the income taxed away.
Why not childhood benefits only to poor families? America’s most successful social programs, including Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, are all universal. The deduction of interest on home mortgages is similarly available to all homeowners. And primary and secondary education is free for all children in America. Such universal programs have persistent and widespread political support. These are what made America great. A universal program will also cover those children considered merely “near-poor” by the current official poverty measures—I will argue that these children are in fact truly poor.
In tracing the causes of America’s neglect of poverty through its historical ideology, its longstanding skepticism of the poor, its continuing deep-seated racism and anti-immigrant attitudes, and a superficial scholarship of dependency, I will bring attention to the deliberate official understating of the numbers of the poor. The official poverty measure in America is one of the most irresponsible statistics produced by the government. I will closely examine the damage done to poor children, and describe how these children actually live.
Poor children and their parents have so many needs, but cash should be the highest priority. Several strands of research over the past twenty years have helped form a consensus among leading academics that cash income spent by parents can reduce disadvantages for children significantly. The research has partly been based on experiments when some poor groups have suddenly had access to more money than others, due, for example, to increases in the generosity of federal social programs. The studies show that those poor children do better in school, are more likely to graduate from high school, are often more stable emotionally, are healthier, make higher wages as adults, avoid incarceration, and live longer. Provocative historical sociology studies on cash relief programs begun more than a hundred years ago have convincingly found longer life spans resulting from greater incomes, as they follow recipients to their death. Enabling families to use cash as they choose without conditions has been a constructive solution in Europe and Canada. Parents spend the money by and large on their kids’ needs, and unconditional cash distributions minimize the stigma of poverty, reducing the patronizing attitudes of government officials and society at large.
That America does not provide adequate housing for the poor, decent institutions for childcare, adequate levels of food subsidy, or public education of equal quality is no secret. These needs absorb significant analytical time, institutional attention, and government money, but corrective actions are woefully slow in formulation and fall short of satisfying the need.
Child poverty is too punishing and harmful to wait years for results—especially when cash distributions can help today. A family with two children being provided $300 to $400 for each child when typical decent housing costs roughly $600 or $700 a month can improve their standard of living immediately. The additional income significantly raises the family food and clothing budgets. It may help buy decent childcare for working mothers. Some scholars believe poverty can be cut in half almost immediately for roughly $90 to $110 billion of federal funding a year.
Why Social Policies Are Inadequate
Since the 1990s, America’s new and substantial social programs, including welfare reform and the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), have been mostly designed to get poor parents to work. Their benefits are determined by how much they make. This attitude toward poverty policy reflects a centuries-old battle in America about who the deserving poor are. American leaders have largely concluded that only those who work deserve government aid. Even food stamps have a work requirement. Welfare has changed, but poverty rates have remained high.
Tax credits, which as implied reduce taxes owed, are inefficient and favor the better-off among low-income people rather than very poor Americans. Poverty rates have fallen as a result since the 1990s, but not as much as even some progressive advocates claim, an issue we will address late in the book. Tax credits do not in themselves create either the jobs or the opportunities America badly needs. Studies have found that tax credits also “pushed down somewhat wages in low-skilled labor markets in general. This wage reduction decreases the earnings and employment of others.” Direct cash aid is denigrated by both the left and the right as a waste and inducement to laziness and abuse. But the social policies of today are failing. The poorest of the poor are wantonly neglected, including poor children, under the new American social regime. The sheer number of poor children is a moral tragedy and an appalling waste of precious resources.
The Ubiquitous Poor
If you’re an American, relentless family poverty is nearby. It’s growing in formerly rich suburbs like Nassau and Suffolk Counties in New York. It’s now near the national average in newly rich areas like Santa Clara County in Silicon Valley (12.3 percent). It remains in the Deep South and the agricultural Southwest, where there are the greatest number of poor counties in the country. It is in the Inland Empire of California and persists in Appalachia and in Washington, D.C. People in the citadels of old money, in the elite neighborhoods of Chicago and New York, know it is only a few blocks or at most a couple of miles away—if they think about it at all. Poverty is even more concentrated in recent years than it was in the 1990s. “There are now more census tracts of concentrated poverty than have ever been recorded before,” writes the policy scholar Paul Jargowsky.
A higher proportion of children are poor than adults. To stick for the moment with the official poverty measure, the child poverty rate is 17.5 percent versus 12.3 percent for adults. An updated alternative poverty measure developed by the federal government, but also with flaws, is called the Supplemental Poverty Measure. I believe it, too, understates child poverty. It places child poverty at 15.6 percent, but adults’ poverty is more than 2 percentage points lower.
Put another way, children comprise roughly one-quarter of the population but one-third of the official poor. More than one out of three American children live in official poverty for at least one year. By European poverty measures, the rate could approach one in two. More white children are officially poor than white adults, more black children than black adults, and more Hispanic children than Hispanic adults. One reason there are more poor children than adults is the high number of single-parent households, often headed by women, whose poverty levels are particularly high, in part because there is only one income. The proportion of single-mother households in Europe is almost as high as it is in America, yet their child poverty rates are far lower as a result of adequate social programs.
While tax credits can help, as have improvements in access to health insurance for children, far more attention is paid to the elderly in America than to children. Aid for the elderly, including Social Security, a cash program, and Medicare, is commendable and necessary. But American social programs raise twice as many elderly out of official poverty than they do poor children. The Agriculture Department’s measure of food insecurity is more than twice as high for children as for the elderly, strongly suggesting that children’s poverty rates are understated. To put it simply, children do not have enough food to eat.
In an age where better-off parents spend so much more to enrich their children’s lives than they once did—one estimate is an additional $10,000 a year in developmental expenses for their children—poor children are falling even further behind. To the extent they don’t or can’t develop their full potential, the economy is significantly undermined. When poor children do not receive adequate aid, collateral damage is done to their mothers, who often don’t have access to jobs, are subject to racial and gender pay gaps, and have inadequate help in a society that now virtually demands that women work and incarcerates poor men, particularly men of color.
Copyright © 2020 by Jeff Madrick. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.