Children in Poverty

Sargent Shriver, the architect of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, died in mid-January.  As I read his obituary, I was overcome by a wave of nostalgia for a storied age of U.S. social policy.

Here’s a snapshot of that period:  In 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King told the nation of his “dream,” an economist in the Social Security Administration named Mollie Orshansky began developing a set of poverty thresholds based on the dollar costs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economy food plan for families of three or more persons, multiplied by a factor of three.  In 1964, according to “The History and Development of Poverty Thresholds,”  by Gordon M. Fisher, the Report of the Council of Economic Advisers contained a whole chapter on poverty in America. And in 1965, the President launched his landmark initiative, which spawned Head Start and other investments in children and families.

Here’s a snapshot of poverty in America today, courtesy of the National Center for Children in Poverty  and the Brookings Institution:

  • The federal poverty level in 2010 was $22,050 for a family of four.
  • On average, families need an income equal to about two times the federal poverty level to meet their most basic needs (italics mine).
  • 46 percent—or 11.7 million—of children under age 6 in the U.S. live in low-income families.
  • 24 percent—or 6.1 million—of children under age 6 live in poverty.
  • The overall poverty rate is expected to increase from 12.5 percent in 2007 to nearly 16 percent by 2014.
  • The child poverty rate is expected to increase from 18 percent in 2007 to nearly 26 percent in 2014, adding six million children to the ranks of the poor.

The data are nothing if not depressing.  Especially given our deep, and ever-growing, knowledge about poverty’s profound effects on children’s long-term health and development.  Poverty in the early years has been found to be associated with a host of challenges in all domains of development—cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional, and physical.  Add to that the effects on school readiness, academic achievement, high school completion and incarceration rates, and the picture darkens even more.

Recently, however, I’ve found a couple of reasons for hope.

The first spot of light: “Tackling Child Poverty & Improving Child Well-Being”, by Jane Waldfogel, who reports on Britain’s ambitious campaign to end child poverty by 2020, and its implications for U.S. policy.  By introducing a national minimum wage, a fully refundable child tax credit, doubling the length of paid maternity leave, promoting workplace flexibility, and committing to universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds, the U.K.’s managed to reduce child poverty by more than half—even during the recession, when their child poverty rate fell again, in the last year.  A stark contrast with the U.S., where child poverty has reached its highest level in 20 years.

The second spot of light: Baby’s Space, in Minneapolis, an early childhood development model that is grounded in the “baby’s point-of-view,” offering evidence-based programs and environments that are responsive to each stage of a baby’s unique development.  Founder Terrie Rose caught the eye of the Ashoka Institute, which honored her as one of its social entrepreneurs who create system-changing solutions to the world’s most urgent social problems.  Spend some time listening to her spread the gospel on the video (above).  It made my day.  She’s a master at bringing to life the connections between research, policy, and practice.  And a staunch advocate for our youngest children in poverty.

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