Losing the Fight Against Child Poverty

July 6th, 2010 at 10:44 am David Frum | 34 Comments |

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Last week, the Urban Institute released a new survey of child poverty numbers:

Usually such surveys count the number of children in poverty and find that somewhere between one child in five and one child in seven is poor in the United States. Nothing to brag about, but at least we can tell ourselves that four children out of five are NOT poor.

The Urban Institute wants us to think about child poverty in a different way.

They propose we look at child poverty not as a snapshot in time, but as a sequence over time. If we do, we’ll see that more American children experience poverty than we might suppose – and that their odds of escape over time are much lower than we might hope.

* More than 1 out of 3 American children will be poor at some point in their childhood.

* You might imagine this experience as a brief or temporary one: the child on food stamps as his mother seeks work after a divorce for example. In fact, even children who experience poverty only temporarily tend to experience it recurringly: they cycle in and out of poverty, bad years following good.

* Children born into poverty are much more likely to remain poor in adulthood than children who are not born into poverty.

* Race predicts poverty: black children are 2.5x more likely to experience poverty than white, 7x more likely to be persistently poor.

The Urban Institute’s numbers are based on data from 1968 to 2005. We can assume that things have taken a nasty lurch downward since 2007.

This news might seem “dog bites man.”

Yes, there’s a lot of poverty in America, yes it’s hard to escape, yes minorities are more likely to be poor than whites … tell me something I don’t know.

But even if it’s a familiar story, it bears thinking anew for this reason:

America suffers much more child poverty than do comparably wealthy countries – Germany, France, Canada, etc. – for two main reasons:

* Our much higher levels of immigration and especially unskilled immigration, which continually add to the population of poor in this country.

* Our much lower levels of social spending, which mean that poor families receive far less social support than do poor families in other countries.

Many Americans see these two differences between the U.S. and other rich countries as evidence – or at least as a price worth paying – for America’s superior economic dynamism and social mobility.

As Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in an important statement for National Review about the superiority of the U.S. over the European model:

American attitudes toward wealth and its creation stand out within the developed world. Our income gap is greater than that in European countries, but not because our poor are worse off. In fact, they are better off than, say, the bottom 10 percent of Britons. It’s just that our rich are phenomenally wealthy.

This is a source of political tension, but not as much as foreign observers might expect, thanks partly to a typically American attitude. A 2003 Gallup survey found that 31 percent of Americans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 a year. This isn’t just cockeyed optimism. America remains a fluid society, with more than half of people in the bottom quintile pulling themselves out of it within a decade.

But what if it turns out that America is not really such a fluid society?

I’ve referred before to this Brookings Institution study, published in 2009.

Pay special attention to this chart from page 5.

Only the UK does worse than the US among the 9 countries surveyed – and the social democratic countries of Scandinavia all do better.

This is not an argument in favor of the European way of doing things. I agree with Lowry and Ponnuru – and Charles Murray too – that American freedom and individualism are important national values to be celebrated and defended.

But let’s not flatter ourselves: Those values exact a social cost – and they would be easier to defend if the cost were less high. And the fact that this cost is not being paid by my children or (probably) yours does not make the cost less real to the one-third of America whose children do pay it.

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34 Comments so far ↓

  • cheves222

    Blah blah blah, kids are poor. David, GOPers only care about getting rich(er) and cutting taxes! How silly of you to think we care. Don’t you watch Keith Olbermann? We conservatives LOVE poverty, especially when it means we get cheap labor and no minorities sitting next to us at the symphony.

    Duh.

  • Carney

    If you don’t want more poverty, don’t import more of it, and don’t subsidize its spread.

  • TerryF98

    Tax cuts for the rich, that will fix it.

  • SFTor1

    OK, Carney, we’ll stop importing poverty. Now how about the 20% of American children who live in homes that are officially rated “poor” today?

    What do you want to do with those? Any ideas?

  • sinz54

    Way back when,
    the liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed to studies that children born out of wedlock to teen parents are most likely to be poor and most likely to have trouble climbing out of poverty.

    You want to fix poverty? Fix illegitimacy, with a combination of sexuality education, easily available birth control–and changing society’s attitudes (beginning with Hollywood) that having a baby is just something the girl does for fun with her boyfriend of the week.

  • blowtorch_bob

    No surprise here. The growing gap between rich and poor where the top 1 percent own 99 percent of the wealth.

    A direct result of predatory capitalism which is the main feature of the U.S. economy, a process which began in the 1980 with Reagan.

    The only solution is for the lawmakers in Washington to find ways to limit the damage caused by moneymaking scams on Wall Street. Bringing back the Glass-Steagal is a good first step.

  • Carney

    SFTor1, ending mass immigration, legal and illegal, especially of the unskilled, will help reduce job competition among the low-IQ, low-skill, low-education set.

    We should also consider relaxing the minimum wage, so that those whose experience and labor are worth very little are not barred from legal employment.

    Extremely tough law enforcement policies, far beyond today’s norm, will help the worst neighborhoods and schools function better and attract somewhat better teachers and job opportunities. We should not only accept but expect that arrestees and convicts be disproportionate to the broader population, by being proportionate to the makeup of offenders, and allow much more aggressive policing without a ton of paperwork and career-ending nonsense over every shooting.

    Sweeping educational reforms that break the unions, clean out the educrats, scrap the useless, PC, fuzzy, anti-American, multi-culti nonsense and replace it with the solid basics in reading, math, history, and science, and instill English and patriotism in immigrants, are vital and decades-overdue.

    We should recognize that most people are not college material, and align education and employment policies accordingly. Egalitarianism is poisonous, destructive bunk.

    Our system already does a reasonably good job of picking out diamonds in the rough – high-IQ, high-potential people from poor or working class backgrounds and promoting them to the middle class or affluence. The downside of that is that each decade, each generation, those remaining in the bottom portion of society become less and less intelligent on average, and thus harder to “reach” and more prone to short-sighted, self-destructive behavior.

  • pnwguy

    So far no one has lauded David for taking an honest look at this subject, and not glossing over the downsides, which many if not most conservative commentators just ignore. That’s one reason I think Frum “gets” the difference between winning and governing. Not every social problem has a government solution. But being indifferent to the plight of our fellow citizens is neither a winning strategy politically or a good philosophy for a nation.

    David, I suspect others will just say that you air these things because it makes other conservatives look bad, and you good by contrast. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think you truly want to understand, discuss, and work out the social policy issues. It is appreciated. And it’s why I read your site often.

  • Rabiner

    If you want to close income disparity while not harming economic developing, increase taxes on the wealthy. Reducing the incentive for corporations to pay an individual 5 million dollars annually over 2 million will be reduced if taxes consume the majority of that increased income. Only when taxes for the extreme wealthy were reduced in the 1980s did we see a significant shift in the ratio of pay between executives and employees and the incentives of short term financial gains over long term gains were exacerbated. Reducing these incentives may reduce productivity within particular fields but it’s unlikely that an individual will be that much less productive making 2 million over 10 million as an executive of a large company since 2 million is still quite a large sum. Rather than increasing today’s brackets, add a new bracket to the federal income tax that covers incomes over 1 million annually perhaps.

    “Our system already does a reasonably good job of picking out diamonds in the rough – high-IQ, high-potential people from poor or working class backgrounds and promoting them to the middle class or affluence. The downside of that is that each decade, each generation, those remaining in the bottom portion of society become less and less intelligent on average, and thus harder to “reach” and more prone to short-sighted, self-destructive behavior.”

    Any evidence of this Carney? I’m pretty sure today’s poor have acquired more information than the past generations poor. Maybe not relatively to society but definitely in gross terms.

    I find it hilarious that you’re against egalitarianism considering all our civil codes and laws are egalitarian. Our society as a whole is egalitarian by providing everyone with a public education. The list could go on and on. So what about it are you so against? How is it ‘poisonous, destructive bunk’? Seems to be the foundation of any civil and just society.

  • Nanotek

    “We should recognize that most people are not college material, and align education and employment policies accordingly. Egalitarianism is poisonous, destructive bunk.”

    odd how every person who says that usually considers themselves college material

    thanks but I’ll stick to egalitarianism (equal rights) any day … it has helped propel our nation like a main spring

  • Carney

    Rabiner, I have no interest in income disparity.

    You also, typically, confuse having an impartial legal system with the false presumption that all are equal in intellectual capacity, talent level, or suitability for various tasks.

  • Madeline

    Extremely tough law enforcement policies, far beyond today’s norm,

    I would argue that today’s norm of “extremely tough law enforcement policies” actually exacerbates the problem. I think you would find that a staggeringly high percentage of children living in poverty have at least one parent who is incarcerated. And a pretty high percentage of those parents are incarcerated on non-violent drug charges.

    The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the free world. How much tougher can we get?

  • Carney

    Madeline, you might make a case for me on drug legalization cutting back on a fuel of gang violence, but I don’t buy the non-violent drug charges thing. Given the huge numbers of bodies that cops, prosecutors, courts, and jails have to process, they are all actually eager to find any way to keep people out of jail. Plea bargains, leniency not only for first timers but habitual offenders, etc. are the norm. You have to work with dogged, persistent determination to get a significant jail sentence.

    And talking about generational issues, it’s been known for well over a century that a drastically disproportionate share of criminals had criminals for fathers, and even going back further. We need to look closely at what we are doing to incentivize criminals replacing and perpetuating themselves, and what we can do to reduce the small portion of the population that produces such a large portion of our troublemakers.

    Rewards such as cash or reduced jail sentences for vascectomies seem not only rational but obvious, and physical castration as an option for serious offenders would not only end the multi-generational criminality but also end dramatically reduce the aggression level of the criminal in this generation, both in and out of jail. Mandatory lasting contraceptives for welfare recipients as long as they receive benefits are another.

    As for the whine that we have a high incarceration rate, few first world countries have had our demographic makeup. As that changes, their incarceration rate has also risen, wiping the smug smiles from their faces.

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  • SFTor1

    Carney:

    You rehash one tired, obsolete idea after the other with the hope of not having to touch the third rail of conservative thinking: admitting that we now have serious income disparity in the United States. We have the out-of sight rich, and at the bottom a growing lumpenproletariat. The social fabric is badly rent, to the point where it impedes the functioning of the country.

    David Frum is giving you a hint: the countries that do things the exact opposite (pretty much) than the U.S. are better off than us. Do you see that, Carney?

  • SFTor1

    Carney, I would also be very careful with your “low IQ” rhetoric.

    Show me first that IQ has been demonstrated to be associated with both high and low incomes in a reliable way, and you can use that. Without that documentation you are just making some really bad assumptions.

    So here is the question, Carney: “Does IQ reliably track with income level?”"

  • Rabiner

    Carney:

    “Rabiner, I have no interest in income disparity.

    You also, typically, confuse having an impartial legal system with the false presumption that all are equal in intellectual capacity, talent level, or suitability for various tasks.”

    Actually I didn’t make a false presumption about genetics. Egalitarianism doesn’t specify that all people are equal in terms of their actual ability but that they are given the chance to reach those abilities. It is different to say person A and person B are the same and another to say person A and person B were given comparable opportunities to reach the same level. Egalitarianism is more the latter than the former. So the next time you criticize a social theory maybe you should actually understand it.

  • Carney

    SFTor1, of course we have income disparity. That’s a different issue from having extreme poverty. Nothing inherently about the former is a problem, but the latter is a serious issue. And no, the two are not necessarily linked.

    Maoist China had relatively little income disparity, but enormous amounts of extreme poverty. By contrast, an America where the range goes from humble but not desperate on the one end, to Crassus-like riches on the other, troubles me not at all, nor should it anyone.

    IQ is closely linked with just about every social outcome imaginable, including income. Few issues of social science are as intensely studied, consistently shown, and decisively settled. In fact, IQ does a better job of predicting outcomes than even socio-economic status.

  • easton

    By contrast, an America where the range goes from humble but not desperate on the one end, to Crassus-like riches on the other, troubles me not at all, nor should it anyone.

    Of course it should, on both ends. For one, I would love to see a livable wage, not a reduction in the already pathetic minimum wage, as well as far more radical health insurance reform so that every company in America doesn’t have to also act as a go between for health care providers. On the other end, damn right I would love to see an energy tax on people who own 30,000 square foot Mansions, heating and air conditioning rooms they hardly ever go into, wasting untold gallons of water on grassy lawns in desert climates, etc. with one household consuming more energy than entire neighborhoods in most countries.
    We are at war against an enemy financed by oil oligarchs, yet the rich still insist on tax breaks for their own private planes, where Auto executives charter their own jet to fly to DC to beg for handouts.

    And I will tell you one other thing, I have lived in some of the poorest places on earth yet still found all of them preferable to Newark, NJ. Being poor in the US flat out sucks and just because we are fortunate to have a lot of delusional people in the US overestimating their future lot in life is no excuse not to help them improve it now.

  • Chris

    The Economist — hardly a liberal leftist rag by anyone’s lights — casts doubt on Carney’s story. When a right-of-center publication starts talking about the lack of social mobility in America — and not as a result of lower IQs in the lower classes — collective ears should prick up.

    http://www.economist.com/node/3518560?story_id=3518560

    Unfortunately, you need a subscription, but you can get a free period.

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  • JohnnyA

    “I would argue that today’s norm of “extremely tough law enforcement policies” actually exacerbates the problem. I think you would find that a staggeringly high percentage of children living in poverty have at least one parent who is incarcerated. And a pretty high percentage of those parents are incarcerated on non-violent drug charges.

    The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the free world. How much tougher can we get?” -Madeline

    Personally, I think we need to get away from thinking about it in terms of quantity – how many people we put behind bars – and think about quality/effectiveness – what is the result we are getting for it. We have a growing prison population and we seem to continue to throw money at it. We put small time criminals behind bars and they join gangs to survive the prison environment and leave prison seasoned criminals well connected to gangs and / or organized crime.

    It’s simply wrong that gangs be allowed to continue to function inside prisons. Easier said than done, but prisons need to be places where you are less likely (not more) to commit crimes upon release.

    I’ll agree that many hardened criminals are probably not worth trying to rehabilitate, but many first time offenders are in for drugs and should get the drug treatment and rehabilitation they need.

  • Rabiner

    JohnnyA:

    It isn’t just that we’re putting too many people behind bars for crimes that affect no one beyond the individual. Our justice system has been taken over by the ‘tough on crime’ perspective where retribution is more important than rehabilitation. Having a criminal record ostracizes them from productive society which creates a cycle of poverty within those communities with high incarceration rates.

  • BillCC

    The concept of “child poverty” is problematic. Children are not independent operators; poor children are members of poor households.
    To my knowledge, no government program has with any consistency been able to reach past unsuccessful and ineffective parent or parents to create successful and effective children of that household. Not welfare, not education strategies.
    Polar extremes:
    1. Jewish and Asian kids overpopulate our colleges. Typical households from which they came: married parents who (independent of household wealth) stress the importance of the education of their children.
    2. Pre-Katrina New Orleans Black schoolkids, who were found after the move to other states to be behind their grade peers. 80% from single parent households; 40% adult illiteracy. Assuming this illiteracy distributed evenly to include these single parents, about one-third of pre-Katrina Black schoolkids were from households characterized by a single, illiterate parent.
    How the heck can any external agency affect an equality of outcome?

  • JohnnyA

    Rabiner,

    I agree with you in principle and agree we need a better solution that rehabilitates criminals. But the ‘tough on crime’ is there by request. We need some minimum of law and order on the street. If we can’t rehabilitate them (we need to get better at that), we need to keep them off the streets and from causing more violence.

    From the mid 80′s – mid 90′s many parts of the town I lived (Baltimore) were a war zone. Calling the police was almost a joke. Repeated violent offenders spent little time if any behind bars and often went right back after the victim the minute they got out. People I’ve met from DC, Philly, Boston, New Jersey, New York, Atlanta, Miami and other places say similar things. People got tired of the violence and demanded a solution.

    Agreed that having a criminal record is a stigma, and putting everyone in a neighborhood in jail is not practical. Still, I’ve worked with a number of people that had criminal records that went on to be successful. Anyway, the stigma doesn’t really matter with the violent repeat offenders. From my personal experience, the fastest way to kill a neighborhood is to leave the criminals on the streets – crime begets crime as honest folks with the means move out and only the riffraff stay on. Communities with a zero tolerance policy are more likely to stay crime free in my experience.

  • JohnnyA

    BillCC,

    Agreed. One of the strongest determinants of a child’s future economic success is the parent(s)’s economic success and education level. Poor parents will raise poor children.

    It is politically incorrect to say this (and impractical), but if you are a single, uneducated, poor parent, the best thing you can do for that kid is put them up for adoption. If you are living off welfare, you’ve shown you can’t take care of yourself and you have no business raising kids. If you want to have kids – there’s your incentive – reform yourself and get off welfare. We could do a lot more to reduce the birth rate in these populations, unfortunately certain factions of the republican party have hamstrung some of the programs with faith based initiatives and just say no rather than practical access to birth control methods and education.

    The current focus of welfare is to throw money at a problem. The problem is many of these people need more than money to turn themselves around. They need education, job training and likely counseling and physical training. They need a life rehab. Solving the problem costs a lot more up front (and requires more government in your life than most of us are comfortable with) so we have a cheaper program that just deals with the symptoms.

    What is working and has worked in other countries is a focus on education. South Korea and Spain have come very far in the last 20 years and much of that has been because of a serious focus on education.

    The kids in these poor neighborhoods need more than an education from the school system. These kids show up with more needs than kids from more affluent areas. In high school, I participated in a Saturday volunteer program where we took inner city kids up to our school and provided them with a fun release (sports) and practical support (tutoring and testing). Some kids got counseling. It was amazing that in one Saturday a week, we got to know these kids better (and make more progress with them) than the teachers that spent all week with them. Sadly, programs like that are the exception to the rule. Most school districts insist that school is just for school, their mandate is not to help these kids with their other needs. It’s a fair argument and cheaper up front than making a real difference with the kids, but it costs us more later with more kids repeating the cycle of poverty.

  • Stewardship

    We must reform our welfare system. Not one day goes by that I don’t see a young woman (17-25) with a toddler or two in her shopping cart and another ‘on the way’ using food stamps. If you cannot affort to have children, or cannot afford the one(s) you have, don’t have any until you can afford them. Since the 1960′s, we’ve rewarded this type of behaviour. Who suffers? Those who make the right decisions and are responsible–we’re the ones who pay for everyone elses’ mistakes and irresponsibility.

    It would take just one generation of tough love to turn this self-perpetuating mindset around. I firmly believe that I have the moral obligation to share what I have with others–but I believe I (or my church or local United Way) can deliver that assistance much more effectively than can the federal or state government, without innumerable layers of bureaucracy.

    The other side of this coin (necessary because my view is especially harsh to the female/mother side of the equation) is that we must make fathers responsible for child support. Any father who is not living up to his responsibility needs to have an ankle bracelet attached to his leg, led by the nose to the nearest McDonald’s where he will work 8 hours, then led to public service job (cleaning streets, mopping floors) for another eight hours to ‘earn’ the public assistance his child is receiving from us.

    Put those two recommendations into practice, and we’d see public spending on welfare drop in a hurry–and the level of poverty in our nation recede.

    As an add-on, anyone who has tattoo’s all over his/her face arms, multiple piercings, and wears “pants on the ground” should be rejected from the welfare system automatically. They’ve self-selected to be unemployed for the rest of their lives.

  • someotherdude

    sinz54 writes:

    “You want to fix poverty? Fix illegitimacy, with a combination of sexuality education, easily available birth control–and changing society’s attitudes (beginning with Hollywood) that having a baby is just something the girl does for fun with her boyfriend of the week.”

    sinz54,

    Do you still believe in Santa Clause?

    I’m around very successful and wealthy people…not just your average mundane middle-class hick, but some truly wealthy all-Americans…and they are the most amoral, degenerate, sinners…divorce, prostitution, adultery, gambling, binges in Vegas and underground sex clubs…and this seems to fuel their appetites for sin….if one’s moral virtue is supposed to be reflected in one’s ability to accumulate capital, then…clap your hands harder so that Tinker Bell can come alive.

    I still can’t believe folks cling to that fairy tale…working hard don’t mean squat when others are working ruthlessly and amoraly…

  • joeinqueens

    How was poverty defined in the US?

    How was poverty defined in the European nations?

  • someotherdude

    Stewardship,

    The U.S. government spends quite a bit of money on keeping its wealthy, very happy.

    Should we send IRS agents into their homes, and make sure their moral virtue is deserving of your tax monies…or is moral virtue only reserved for the poor?

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  • msmilack

    I’d be curious what the statistics are on immigration and poverty especially compared to other countries. I suspect immigration is not one of the main factors for the poverty numbers since in the big picture, immigrants actually represent the more fluid part of our society in the economy: it’s the American dream to change one’s status in one of two generations. I think the harder part to remedy is the cycle of poverty which is not about immigration but lack of opportunity for certain segments of the population. Otherwise, this article is thoughtful and important.

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