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.