We’re Number One!

Over the past couple of decades, a number of conservative politicians have championed a distorted American Exceptionalism characterized by the jingoistic boast, “We’re number one!”

According to a recent report highlighted by The Hill, one area in which we are indeed number one is child poverty. Currently, more than 46 million Americans live in poverty, and more than a third of those are children. The U.S. child poverty rate is 22 percent – the highest of any of the rich countries.

Congressional Republicans like Paul Ryan and state-level politicians like Indiana Governor Mike Pence blame child poverty on single mothers, and insist that the way to address the problem is to incentivize marriage. That “solution” ignores the fact that in countries with similar rates of unwed motherhood and a more robust social safety net (think Scandinavian countries), child poverty rates hover around 3 percent.

Attributing child poverty to low rates of marriage also flies in the face of a good deal of recent research suggesting that people who enjoy financial security are more likely to get and stay married. Indiana Governor Pence recently shared a statistic that upper-income folks and college graduates are more likely to have stable marriages as evidence that marriage brings financial security. Actually, it’s the other way around; people who aren’t sweating the rent are more likely to stay married.

As we academic types are wont to point out, correlation is not causation.

If unmarried mothers are not the cause of childhood poverty, what is? At a recent conference hosted by The Roosevelt Institute, the Century Foundation and the Academic Pediatric Association, participants considered the causes and consequences of poverty experienced by a significant percentage of the nation’s children.

Low-wage jobs are an obvious culprit. At least 30 percent of poor children live in homes where one parent works full-time. Full time work at the current minimum wage, however, cannot lift a family of three above the poverty line. Worse, most minimum and low-wage jobs are tenuous. Not only are benefits rare, but parents who miss work to care for a sick child are likely to see their pay docked while also risking termination.

Congressmen earn a base salary of $174,000 per year, so it is probably not surprising that few of them seem to understand the stresses poverty exacts from children. These children grow up in very unstable circumstances, with caregivers (usually mothers but increasingly grandparents) whose struggles to make ends meet sap time and energy that the more fortunate can devote to parenting.

If Congress is unlikely to recognize the social and human costs of an inadequate safety net any time soon, there are at least some state and municipal-level initiatives that hold promise. Several cities, most notably Seattle at $15 per hour, have recently raised their minimum wage. And the Massachusetts legislature has just approved a measure that will gradually raise that state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2017, up from its current $8 level. Governor Deval Patrick is expected to sign it into law.

New York City and Memphis, Tennessee are experimenting with cash transfer programs, and a variety of cities have instituted home visitation programs meant to provide education and other services to low-income families, in an effort to improve cognitive and health outcomes for children in those families.

As promising as several of these experiments are, they are no substitute for a wholesale rethinking of this nation’s approach to poverty, especially as it affects our children.
The past decade has been dominated by a political rhetoric that can only be characterized as Social Darwinism – the belief (bolstered by a distorted Calvinism) that people are poor because they are somehow morally defective, that they are “takers” or lazy or “lack middle-class values.”

Little by little, those stereotypes are being challenged by sound research and by the stories of real people – by the nascent movement for a living wage and ample economic research demonstrating that a living wage benefits the entire economy, not just low-wage workers. That story needs to be told, and retold.

When it comes to child poverty, America should not be number one.


  1. I remember how groups like Atlanta University & their research into the actual effects of ‘Jim Crow’ laid the groundwork for the chipping away at segregation. But it took the progressivism of the 30’s & 40’s to lead to Brown v. Board and Presidents who would support the march toward justice. We must now be the change in how all our children are cared for.

  2. NAFTA and other ill conceived programs that HELP companies fire Americans and hire folks in other countries. JOB loss has been a huge problem. It does not benefit America to have our products made in other nations. The savings are no longer that high but the cost to our people is HUGE. PENALIZE corporations that make products abroad. REWARD corporations that make products in the USA. More Jobs for Americans will help poverty rates more than any other program I can think of.

  3. Let’s not forget the contribution the country’s war on drugs has paid to impoverishing American children, particularly black and Hispanic children. Not only is a drug-convicted parent lost to jail or prison, but after release unable to find a job because of the past conviction. Drug addiction is a serious problem that deserves a serious answer–incarceration just creates a second problem.

  4. Goodness Indiana! Ain’t you proud to actually be Number One in something, anything other than the issues you lie to the public about. These Number One issues can be proven; your lies are right out front, hoping to distract attention from the real problem issues in this God forsaken state. Yes; GOP members, I said God forsaken because you take His name in vain with each lie you speak and each time to prevent help or remove assistance from those who need and deserve it. But we have all those balls, in every shape, size and color to prove your lack of understanding regarding what your job entails. You are adept at “busy work” but have not one iota of understanding of the term “work ethic” You are marching in place or backwards; but never forward; dragging Indiana residents along with you. Your time will come because, eventually “What goes around, comes around.” An old boss of mine once said about politicians, “They need to be nice to the people they pass on the way up because they are doing to pass them on the way down.”

  5. There are social consequences and costs for poverty, disease and unemployment that some refuse to acknowledge. The argument seems to be about the causes, who pays those costs and how. Our collective failure is reflected by the increase in the poverty rate, an untrained and unprepared work force and homelessness. The discussion continues while the situation gets worse with no end in sight.

  6. Back in the day, Americans competed with other Americans for jobs. Now we compete with the world. Merely a fact of progress. Those that we compete with for jobs that most anyone can do are willing to do them to finance a lifestyle that we culturally deem unacceptable. It’s a third world world out there and so as we fail at competition, we suffer as the third world always has, with monumental poverty and breathtaking wealth inequity.

    Our culture was and is relatively ill prepared for this turn of events. It has been made much worse by subcultures of those who prosper from it, feeling empowered to institutionalize it.

    In my opinion the only path out of this swamp is greatly improving our educational success rate, most significantly measured by graduation rates at all levels of education.

    My summer home town, Rochester, NY, was just deemed exceptional as we managed to graduate merely mid 40% of our city high school students. How would we expect the people who couldn’t make that grade to compete with the average Asian now looking forward to lives out of crushing poverty?

    In Rochester we tried paying school teachers, administrators, even school board members wages that are very competitive with all other professions and are among the highest in the nation for educators. No change. Our further options are hampered by the poverty caused by the problem to be solved struggling to pay for further solutions.

    Like global warming, it’s clear that the most expensive choice is the least progress. We engineers call this instability. When the natural progression of forces is toward extreme consequences. We have to use what we have, to solve this problem or we won’t have in the future the means of solution.

    Innovation can save us. In fact is a requirement for salvation. Are we thus motivated by the specter of disaster? Not clear. Yet.

  7. There is no way we can ‘compete’ with third world countries. How can you compete with a .30 cent hourly wage? All you can do is succumb! Only tariffs can level the field. Tariffs which we once had before Wall Street showed us a better way. When they add another 10 grand to imported cars, we’ll all drive Chevys. (And the GM will revert to making shit cars!)

  8. Science DOES have a lot to say about child poverty. Recently published research shows clear
    differences in the brain scans of children raised in poverty. Poor nutrition; lack of medical care; living in housing with rodents, roaches, lead paint & plumbing & soil; AND lack of a stimulating environment all affect cognitive development.

    I’m not sure why we need scientific research to tell us the obvious. Poverty is bad for people, especially children. Advocate as I am for education, we can’t educate people out of it unless there are plentiful jobs with higher than poverty-level wages awaiting them. As Sheila has noted previously, even the majority of those who majored in science and math cannot find jobs in their field of study.

    Our economic system is out of sync. We’re interdependent. Another person’s poverty affects us all.

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