Poverty and Children in the United States.

Introduction

Children are the future of the nation and their welfare is important if the nation is to have a safe and bright future. It is an amazing fact that in a developed country as the United States, nearly 13 million children, about18% of all children, live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level (NCCP, 2008). Most of these children have parents who work but still suffer from poverty because of factors such as low wages and unstable employment. Poverty can affect the healthy growth of children and can cause physical, mental, social, emotional and behavioral problems. These risks are greatest for children who are exposed to the perils of poverty at a very small age (NCCP, 2008). Thesis: The negative effects of poverty on children can be mitigated by public policies that aim at creating work opportunities for low-income parents and providing early care and learning experiences for their children.

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Statistics

According to US standards, the federal poverty level is set at $21,200 a year for a family of four. In reality, it has been found that families need almost twice that amount to cover basic expenses. This standard which is twice the federal poverty level has been labeled as “low income” and used by the National Council for Children in Poverty (NCCP) for measuring economic hardship (Cauthen and Fass, 2008). Using this standard,.it has been found that about 39 percent of the nation’s children, nearly 29 million in 2006, live in families with low incomes, that is, incomes below twice the official poverty level (for 2008, about $42,000 for a family of four) (Cauthen and Fass, 2008). Statistics also show that low-income rates for young children are higher than those for older children and about 43 percent of children under age six live in low-income families, compared to 37 percent of children over age six (Cauthen and Fass, 2007). This is explained by the fact that parents of younger children tend to be younger and to have less education and work experience than parents of older children, so their earnings are typically lower.

Children and Poverty

Children are said to live in poverty when they are not able to have a minimum, decent standard of living that allows them to live a normal life in society. Basic hardship associated with poverty is the lack of materials such as food, clothing and shelter. In modern times, basic needs do not stop with these materials. People also need running water, electricity, indoor plumbing and telephone service. Human and social capital is also considered a basic need and it refers to education, basic life skills and employment experience as well as social networks and access to civic institutions (Cauthen and Fass, 2008). Only through human and social capital help, families can climb up the economic mobility ladder, increase their earnings and get access to the basic necessities of life.

In some cases, even though families do not come under the officially ‘poor’ category, and have incomes between 100 and 200 percent of the poverty level, they face a lot of poverty related problems in running a home such as missed rent payments, utility shut offs, inadequate access to health care, unstable child care arrangements, and running out of food. Different children experience poverty in different ways. While to some it means deprivation of material comforts, some children may also be forced to endure social isolation (Cauthen and Fass, 2008). Children in poverty are deprived of a home in a safe neighborhood, access to good schools, good jobs and basic services, basic life skills and support networks. Regina Tavares da Silva (2002) notes that underdevelopment and poverty, combined with discriminatory social values prevent children in general, and girls in particular, from acquiring literacy, thus depriving them of life chances.

When the family income is low, the child finds it difficult to develop his mental capabilities and further the child faces physical, behavioral, social, and emotional problems. Children who suffer from poverty at a very young age suffer the most then older children. The suffering is not only because of the low amount of income but also because of the huge uncertainty and instability associated with poverty. The financial stability of the family is volatile and fluctuates rapidly.

According to the Food Research and Action Center (2000), hungry children are likely to suffer two to four times more often than well-fed children from such health problems as unwanted weight loss, fatigue, headaches, irritability, and inability to concentrate, and frequent colds (Park et al, 2002). Children born in poverty are susceptible to be born prematurely or underweight or have some birth defect due to lack of prenatal care (Park et al, 2002). The risk for respiratory, neurological, and cognitive problems (e.g., birth asphyxia, cerebral palsy, seizure disorder, visual and motor coordination problems, mental retardation, and learning disability) increases in premature infants, especially those with low birth weight (McLoyd, 1998). Poverty prevents children from getting the best medical care as they cannot afford health services or health supplies. One in four poor children (25.2%) had no health insurance at all during 1998 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). Many doctors refuse Medicaid patients because of low reimbursement rates from the government (Sherman, 1994). Poverty affects a child’s productivity in terms of its cognitive development and schooling (Fram et al, 2007), family leisure and recreation. Poor families are unable to pay for quality child care or toys or books or extracurricular activities. Early cognitive development and young children’s IQs are associated with the family’s ability to provide intellectually stimulating experiences (Bradley et al, 1994). Children from economically stable families begin school with their verbal and math skills at a higher level than the children coming from poorer homes and this sets a gap in school outcomes early (Park et al, 2002). Due to such disadvantages, many children from poor homes drop out from schools. 34.1% of children from poor families dropped out from high school, but the national average dropout rate was only 17.3% (Mayer, 1997). Disabled poor children suffer more than normal poor children academically (Schonaut and Satz, 1983). Macionis (2006) points out that higher education is the main path to occupational achievement and the most crucial factor affecting access to it is money.

Children in poverty are unable to afford higher education. Poverty restricts opportunities for family members to play, exercise, and socialize in sound recreational activities (Sherman, 1994). Children of poor families do not have positive adult role models and are many times concerned about crime, violence, drugs, etc. (Sherman, 1994; Eamon, 2000) has found that living in low-income neighborhoods had a significant correlation with problematic behavior such as temper tantrums. Lang (2002) points out those children in poverty who suffer from hunger are five times more likely to attempt suicide, compared with well-fed adolescents. They also are four times more likely to suffer from chronic, low-grade depression, which is a high risk factor for major depression; are almost twice as likely to have been suspended from school; and have more problems getting along with their peers (Lang, 2000). McLeod and Shanahan (1993), based on the data from the 1986 Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) (Center for Human Resource Research, 1988, have found that depending on the length of time children are exposed to poverty, their levels of stress, unhappiness, anxiety and dependence increases causing emotional instability. A study by Axinn, Duncan, and Thornton (1997) reveals that family income was a significant predictor of the children’s self-esteem. Children in poverty are often put in foster homes where they are often abused and mishandled. In 2003, over half a million children were living in foster homes. But foster care systems are not working because it has been found that forty percent of foster children end up on welfare or in prison (Balmer, 2005).

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Intergenerational Poverty

Traditionally it has been observed that poverty is passed from one generation to the next and it was to counter the entrapment of people in long term poverty that motivated President Johnson to declare War on Poverty. If it can be proved that poverty is truly transmitted across generations, it would imply that the U.S. norms of fairness and meritocracy are questionable (Iceland, 2003). Research has shown that there is about a 0.40 correlation between fathers’ and sons’ income. With regard to poverty, about 1 in 4 who were consistently poor before age seventeen were still poor at ages twenty-five to twenty-seven. But poor African American children are less likely to escape poverty than others – black children are still twice as likely as white children to be poor, and a record number of black children are living in extreme poverty (Edelman and Jones, 2004). Thus it is true that there is moderate correlation of poverty across generations.

There have been four theories postulated to explain the extent of poverty across generations: the “economic resources” model; the “noneconomic resources” model; the “welfare trap” model; and the “structural/environmental” model. According to the economic resources model, due to lack of money and time, poor parents are unable to focus on the education of their children which in turn weakens their economic prospects. They are also unable to provide them with safe neighborhoods, or good schools or job networks. All of this affects the child’s chances of coming up in life. According to the noneconomic resources model, apart from money, poor parents also lack noneconomic resources that affect their children. Such noneconomic resources include education, a stress free life, ability to provide appropriate parental supervision, etc. According to the welfare trap model, the government welfare system nurtures intergenerational poverty. Lawrence Mead has argued that, when individuals rely heavily on welfare, the stigma associated with welfare disappears and welfare recipients develop self-defeating attitudes and poor work ethics that are then transmitted to their children. Finally, structural/environmental models hold that environmental factors such as labor market conditions, migration patterns, racial discrimination, and racial and class segregation all play a role in perpetuating poverty across generations (Iceland, 2003). William Julius Wilson, perhaps the best known proponent of this view, argued that the loss of well-paid blue-collar manufacturing jobs from the inner city and the out-migration of middle-class African Americans from poor urban areas increased the intergenerational transfer of poverty among inner-city residents (Iceland, 2003). Research has provided the strongest support for the economic resources model, where parents’ lack of money and time hinders their ability to invest in their children.

Parental Education

Low levels of parental education are a major factor contributing towards low income. Eighty-two percent of children whose parents have less than a high school diploma live in low-income families, and over half of children whose parents have only a high school degree are low income as well (Cauthen and Fass, 2008). Workers with only a high school degree have seen their wages stagnate or decline in recent decades while the income gap between those who have a college degree and those who do not has doubled. Yet only 30 percent of workers in the U.S. have a college degree (Cauthen and Fass, 2008).

Family Structure and Ethnicity

Data reveal that 56 percent of these low-income families have at least one full-time working parent, 28 percent work part time, and only 16 percent are unemployed, many of whom would be willing to work if employment were available. However, the single most striking variable underlying child poverty is single parenthood, caused by divorce and unwed births (Fellmeth, 2005). But marriage alone does not protect children from poverty as studies show that one in four children with married parents live in a low income family. In rural and suburban areas a greater proportion of children with married parents come under the low-income standard. Minority children are more susceptible to poverty because of higher rates of single parenthood and lower levels of parental education and earnings. About 60 percent of black and Latino children and 63 percent of American Indian children live in low-income families, compared to about 26 percent of white children and Asian children. At the same time, however, whites comprise the largest group of low-income children with 11 million white children in the low income group. Children of immigrants are also likely to be poor (Cauthen and Fass, 2008). In the six states with the largest populations of immigrants—California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas—the poverty rate among children of immigrant parents ranges from 16% to 39%. About 20 percent of this country’s children—nearly 17 million—have at least one foreign-born parent. Fifty-seven percent of children, whose parents are immigrants are low-income, compared to 35 percent of children whose parents were born in the U.S. (Cauthen and Fass, 2008).

Regional economies

In their report titled “The New Poor: Regional Trends in Child Poverty Since 2000”, Ayana Douglas-Hall and Heather Koball Child show that the largest increases of children in poverty has happened in the Midwest region during the period 2000-2004. They further point out that since 2000, the Midwest was the only region to experience an increase in poverty among children with employed parents. This was due to the shift in jobs from the manufacturing sector to the services sector which paid less and did not offer job stability. In the Midwest, the increase in poverty among children whose parents did not attend college was greater than among children whose parents had more education. This cannot be generalized all over the country as in the West, children with educated parents experienced greater poverty. Thus, the authors conclude that different regional economies have different effect on children’s vulnerability to poverty and suggest that programs such as Food Stamps, TANF, and Medicaid are essential to protecting children vulnerable to poverty.

Conclusion

Children living under conditions of poverty struggle in life. Sometimes they succeed but most of the time they are affected seriously on the physical, cognitive, emotional and social levels. Child poverty cannot be removed by a single action or step. There is a need for comprehensive and systematic government support at various levels such as policy, research and practices, to meet the challenges of child poverty. Policies targeted at raising family incomes can help to increase children’s cognitive development and academic accomplishments and the needs of poor children and their families can be met through school-family-community partnerships. These are small steps that can bring huge benefits to children living in poverty and help them climb up the social mobility ladder.

Bibliography

Axinn, W., Duncan, G. J., & Thornton, A. (1997). The effects of parents’ income, wealth and attitudes on children’s completed schooling and self-esteem. Russell Sage Foundation. New York.

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Balmer, Sharon (2005). From Poverty to Abuse and Back Again: The Failure of the Legal and Social Services Communities to Protect Foster Children. Fordham Urban Law Journal. Volume: 32. Issue: 5.

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Edelman, Wright Marian and Jones, M. James (2004). Separate and Unequal: America’s Children, Race, and Poverty. The Future of Children. Volume: 14. Issue: 2.

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