With the recession in a supposed retreat, sobering statistics on American children and poverty point to a growing problem no one wants to acknowledge. 42% of the nationís children live in low-income homes and a fifth of those children live in poverty.
Whatís even worse is that since 2000, the number of children living in poverty has risen by 33 percent, even though the total number of children in the U.S. only rose by 3 percent in the same time period. UNICEFís 2007 comparison of child poverty levels of the 24 wealthiest countries in the world placed America dead last, which should make people wonder quite a bit about the nationís priorities. However, it doesn’t appear many people do.
Judging from public policies and government programs on the budget chopping block Ė funding for K-12 education and Medicaid for example Ė itís clear that Americaís children only matter when their future earning potential (and ability to prop entitlement programs via taxes) is in doubt.
How Did This Happen?
Why so little concern for Americaís most vulnerable?
Perhaps it is rooted not just a little in racism and the persistent, and completely inaccurate, portrayal of the working poor as lazy, irresponsible welfare junkies.
Religious traditions in the United States long ago managed to sow seeds that painted the poor as responsible for their poverty in spite of the fact that racism and sexism are more directly responsible for the treadmill to which most poor families find themselves tethered.†
Images of single mothers having babies for welfare gain and lazy entitlement-addicted poor have propelled many a politician to office and is a staple topic of the GOP-inspired talking heads of television and radio. But the reality is that lack of affordable child care, a stagnating minimum wage, limited or no public transportation options, and an inflexible work week that refuses to recognize parental obligations are more likely factors.
While it is true that blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans have twice the poverty rate of whites and Asians, the fact is that white children make up the largest and fastest growing low-income group.
What the British Did
Great Britain faced similar issues in 1994 and used a combination of welfare-to-work programs, implementing a national minimum wage that puts the United States to shame and a combination of tax reductions and credits that made employment a viable option for those mired in poverty.
The Brits also recognized the value of creating programs that directly impacted young children. They doubled maternity leave. Child-care assistance programs were started, and businesses instituted flexible work schedules for parents of young children.
As a result, the percentage of single parents in the workforce increased from 45 percent to 57 percent between 1997 and 2008. Their child poverty rate went from 30 percent in 1994 to just 12 percent today.
Politicians and education reformers would have Americans believe that living in poverty is not an obstacle for children that a little hard work and bootstrap yanking couldn’t fix, but the British example illustrates otherwise. Without public commitment of some kind, poverty breeds more poverty.
What Do You Think?
Is there a good reason to allow American kids to live in poverty? Where should our priorities be? What can be done to reverse this alarming trend? Share your ideas and stories.
Photo credit:†Kids in the Overpass by Lance Neilson