“Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.” –Pope Francis
“Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”–President Nelson Mandela
Pope Francis speaks out faithfully and forcefully against poverty and has been called “the pope of the poor.” But on his first visit to the United States there was demoralizing news about poverty, especially child poverty, in our nation—the world’s largest economy.
Despite six years of economic recovery, children remain the poorest group in America. Children are poor if they live in a family of four with an annual income below $24,418—$2,035 a month, $470 a week, $67 a day. Extreme poverty is income less than half this. New Census Bureau data reveal that nearly one-third of the 46.7 million poor people in the United States in 2014 were children. Of the more than 15.5 million poor children, 70 percent were children of color who already constitute the majority of our nation’s youngest children and will be the majority of all our children by 2020. They continue to be disproportionately poor: 37 percent of Black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children are poor compared to 12 percent of White, non-Hispanic children. This is morally scandalous and economically costly. Every year we let millions of children remain poor costs our nation over $500 billion as a result of lost productivity and extra health and crime costs stemming from child poverty.
The Black child poverty rate increased 10 percent between 2013 and 2014 while rates for children of other races and ethnicities declined slightly. The Black extreme child poverty rate increased 13 percent with nearly 1 in 5 Black children living in extreme poverty. Although the Hispanic child poverty rate fell slightly, Hispanic children remain our largest number of poor children.
Shamefully the youngest and most vulnerable children are our poorest during their years of greatest brain development. Nearly 1 in 4 children under five is poor and almost half live in extreme poverty. More than 40 percent of Black children under five are poor and nearly 25 percent of young Black children are extremely poor.
Children’s chances of being poor depend partly on the lottery of geography which is why a national safety net for all our children to escape poverty is essential. God did not make 50 different classes of children and Mississippi’s children are as precious as Massachusetts’ children and all of their basic survival needs, health care and nutrition and housing, should be provided. New state data show child poverty rates in 2014 remained at record high levels across 40 states, with only 10 states showing significant declines between 2013 and 2014. In 22 states, 40 percent or more Black children were poor. In 32 states, more than 30 percent of Hispanic children were poor. And in 24 states, more than 30 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native children were poor. Only Hawaii had a Black child poverty rate below 20 percent while only two states, Kentucky and West Virginia, had White, non-Hispanic child poverty rates over 20 percent.
The rates are staggering, especially when we know there are steps Congress could take right now to end child poverty and save taxpayer money now and in the future. In CDF’s recent Ending Child Poverty Now report based on an analysis by the nonpartisan Urban Institute, we proposed nine policy changes which would immediately reduce child poverty 60 percent and Black child poverty 72 percent and lift the floor of decency for 97 percent of all poor children by ensuring parents the resources to support and nurture their children: jobs with livable wages, affordable high-quality child care, supports for working families like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), and safety nets for basic needs like nutrition, housing assistance and child support.
Yet Congress is perilously close again to making the wrong choices that would make many more children and families poor by leaving in place draconian budget caps which will cause more deep cuts in many of the very safety net supports evidence proves help poor children and families escape poverty. Pope Francis said earlier this year, “Those who have the task of governing are responsible for children . . . When it comes to children, in every case, there should be no utterance of ‘After all, we are not a charity,’ or ‘we’re sorry but we can’t do anything.’ These words do not count when it comes to children.”
Congress must make permanent improvements in pro-work tax credits (both the EITC and the CTC), increase the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) benefit, and expand housing subsidies and quality child care investments for children when parents work. To complement gains in these areas and to reduce child poverty long term, we must ensure all children comprehensive affordable health care, high-quality early childhood development and learning opportunities to get ready for school and a level education playing field to help all children achieve and succeed in life. It is a great national, economic and military security threat that a majority of all children in America cannot read or compute at grade level and that nearly three-fourths of our Black and Latino children cannot.
New Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) data underscore the continuing effectiveness of these and other key programs in lifting children and families out of poverty. The SPM counts income and expenses not covered in the official poverty measure. Data show key safety net programs lifted millions of people including children above the SPM poverty line between 2013 and 2014. These supports all reduced child poverty: SNAP (4.7 million people), rent subsidies (2.8 million people), and the Earned Income Tax Credit and the low-income portion of the Child Tax Credit (roughly 10 million people including more than 5 million children). There also is strong evidence these measures will provide long-term benefits for children.
We know how to reduce child poverty but keep refusing to do it. How can our Congressional leaders even discuss spending as much as $400 billion to extend tax cuts for corporations and businesses while denying more than 15.5 million poor children—70 percent non-White—the opportunity to improve their odds of succeeding in school and in life? If we scrapped the F-35 fighter jet program, which is still not producing fully functional planes, we could use its projected cost to reduce child poverty by 60 percent for 19 years and save billions in lost productivity from school dropout and dependency costs.
We can and must do more right now as children have only one childhood. As Pope Francis has said in the past, “A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being.” In his historic address to a joint session of Congress September 24th he emphasized the urgency of acting now: “How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts…A nation can be considered great…when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed.”
By this measure of greatness, the United States has a long way to go.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.
Mrs. Edelman’s Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.