Ignoring Poverty Doesn't Work

The United States cannot continue to ignore its widening income gap and increasing poverty rates if it truly wants to generate a healthy and socially productive future for its children.

A recent analysis of U.S. census data revealed that the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans is the widest ever recorded. Our wealthy country has now earned the dubious distinction of having the greatest income disparity among Western industrialized nations.

Well into the 21st century, the U.S. is also a nation with a child poverty rate of 21 percent – up from 16 percent in 2000. Children are 25 percent of the total population, but 35 percent of the population in poverty. Higher percentages of Black and Hispanic children live in poverty (35.4% and 33.1%) than White and Asian children (11.9% and 13.3). The majority of those children are attending public schools.

Poverty’s impact on children is very real. It affects their ability to achieve their potential in many ways. Here are just a few:

Inadequate health care: Low-income parents are unable to provide their children with adequate routine and preventative care for a number of reasons. Sometimes children are not covered by medical and/or dental insurance. Even parents with insurance coverage can have difficulty taking time off from low-wage, hourly jobs to take their children to the doctor or the dentist. Oftentimes these families have restricted transportation options. Such barriers mean that poor children are more likely to have vision problems, dental problems, and other health problems which interfere with their academic work.

Lack of high-quality early childhood programs: Low-income children are less likely to have access to strong early childhood programs where pre-academic skills, vocabulary, and fine motor skills are developed. They spend more time in front of the TV and often have limited access to books.

Inadequate nutrition – Poor children experience higher rates of food insecurity and more limited access to healthy food. Limited budgets, a dearth of local supermarkets, and limited transportation make it difficult for low-income parents to keep their pantries supplied with food.

Toxic living environments – The environments in which poor children often live can contribute to physical problems such as asthma, brain damage from lead poisoning and other problems. Asthma is the biggest cause of chronic school absence and disproportionately affects low-income children.

Out-of-school responsibilities – As they get older, low-income children are more likely to assume family responsibilities, an obligation which takes time and attention away from their schoolwork. Home circumstances might require older children to hold a job so they can contribute to the family income. When parents work long hours or at night, older children might also take major roles in caring for siblings.

Crises and high family stress – Low-income children suffer from higher incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder, transitory living arrangements, transportation challenges, the incarceration of family members, perilous neighborhoods, and other disruptions and situations which negatively affect growing children’s sense of safety and security, and thus their ability to concentrate at school.

When the effects of the above are combined, the impacts on children can be huge. A few may be able to defy the odds, but the reality is that millions of others cannot.

Parents Across America believes that there are “no excuses” for a nation as wealthy as ours to have such a high poverty rate. PAA asks policymakers to recognize the significant negative impact that poverty has on student learning and urges American citizens to work for positive change.

– Sharon Higgins

Sources and Additional Reading

Alexander, Michelle. “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American Undercaste.” Huffington Post 8 March 2010. Date Accessed 30 January 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michelle-alexander/the-new-jim-crow-how-the_b_490386.html

Ferguson, H.B., S. Boviard and M.P. Mueller. “The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children.” Paediatrics & Child Health October 2007. Date Accessed 30 January 2011. (Canadian study) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2528798/

Kristof, Nicholas. “Our Banana Republic.” NY Times 6 November 2010. Date Accessed 2 February 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/opinion/07kristof.html

Moyers, Bill. “Moyers on Inequality.” Bill Moyers Journal 2 April 2010. Date Accessed 30 January 2011. http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04022010/watch2.html

National Poverty Center. “Poverty in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions.” Date accessed 30 January 2011. http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/#5

Noah, Timothy. “Theoretical Egalitarians: Why income distribution can’t be crowd-sourced.” Slate 27 September 2010. Date Accessed 30 January 2011. http://www.slate.com/id/2268872/

Powell, John A. “Brown Disparity Data: Then and Now.” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University. April 2004. http://kirwaninstitute.org/publicationspresentations/presentations/2004.php

Rothstein, Richard. “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap.” New York: Teachers College Press, 2004. http://store.tcpress.com/0807745561.shtml

Toppo, Greg. “Study: Poverty dramatically affects children’s brains.” USA Today 10 December 2008. Date accessed 30 January 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-12-07-childrens-brains_N.htm

Yen, Hope. “Income Gap Between Rich, Poor the Widest Ever.” Associated Press 28 September 2010. Date accessed 30 January 2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/09/28/national/main6907321.shtml