Silent crisis: 1 in 5 American kids is poor

Story highlights

  • John Sutter talks child poverty with the CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation
  • 1 in 5 kids in the United States lives below the federal poverty line
  • Among rich countries, the U.S. ranks second to last for its rate of child poverty
  • Detroit has a staggering child poverty rate of 59%; Cleveland, 54%
I know, I know, I know. There's enough bad news in the world. You don't want to hear any more of it from me. But #sorrynotsorry. I'm here to bombard you with another catastrophe that isn't making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the richest country in the world.
Don't get too panicked, though, because this is a crisis with tangible solutions. Twenty percent of American kids live in poverty, according to the latest data from the Census Bureau, which considers a family of four living on less than $23,624 to be poor. The United States actually has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the rich world, according to a 2013 report from UNICEF. Only Romania fares worse.
But after chatting Tuesday morning with Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which publishes the helpful Kids Count reports on child poverty and funds solutions, I'm left with the sense that this is a slow-drip crisis that can be stopped.
I talked with McCarthy, who is started his career as a psychiatric social worker and holds a doctorate in social work and social research, as a primer for an upcoming Change the List project on child poverty in the United States. You voted for me to cover this topic as part of that reader-driven series, which focuses on bottom-of-the-list places and issues.
John D. Sutter
The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. After you read it, please feel free to send me additional questions or suggestions over e-mail or Twitter. I'm in the process of planning our coverage of this critical issue.
Me: I just wanted to start out by addressing the fact that I'm calling you on kind of a strange morning. The U.S. is helping with a bombing campaign in Syria. There's a climate change summit at the U.N. I wondered if you could speak to how child poverty compares to these other crises that the world is facing.
McCarthy: It feels like every morning you wake up and you ask yourself, "What could be next?" The connection I would make to child poverty worldwide and in the U.S. is that if you think of all these countries and all these crises, you think about the impact of child development -- of experiencing these kinds of crises.
I would suspect there are somewhat similar impacts on both brain development and on social-emotional development from the accumulation of toxic stress. (Toxic stress is) basically stress that is continuous, high level and without the kind of supportive protective factors that enables one to recover from it.
The research suggests that children who experience trauma, ongoing deprivation -- as would be associated with living in a refugee experience and the terror of being close to violence and bombings and upheaval -- that in fact living in deep poverty, especially as a very young child, for an extended period, has a similar impact on brain development and social-emotional development and on lifelong outcomes. All the way from impact on educational success, employment and even health. Heart disease, stress-related diseases showing up in adulthood that can be tracked to extended experiences of (economic) deprivation, trauma and stress as a child.
Me: Tell me a little bit more about "toxic stress" and poverty? Does it actually change a person's brain chemistry? Help me make that connection: How does that result in higher levels of obesity or the educational problems you're talking about?
McCarthy: The typical stress response has to do with hormones that enable us to deal with a threat that's being faced. So cortisol goes up, adrenaline goes up, etc. In the ideal circumstance, that upturn in hormones allows us to respond to the threat and then we return to the more normal way of functioning. Some of that stress is a good thing. But when the perceived or real threat is chronic (including threats from poverty), the brain is being bathed in these high levels of stress-related hormones.
The brain actually reacts in its biochemistry. For example, there can be fewer functional synaptic connections. You might have lots of synaptic connections, but they're not as tense as they ought to be. You have lower level of brain mass in certain areas of the brain as a result. That's the brain chemistry side. There is some data to suggest that, in addition, the impact on the metabolic system and how it develops in young children continues into adolescence and adulthood. That's where the tendency towards obesity, diabetes and heart disease -- start to get made.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that these brain development problems and metabolic problems are the final word. The brain is actually quite plastic. Even children who have experienced deep poverty -- if they are provided the right supports and nurture and care -- in fact the brain can continue to develop and make up lost ground.
Me: You all recently did this analysis of the latest census data on child poverty. Tell me what from that surprised you -- or what do you think people wouldn't realize?
McCarthy: I was not surprised but encouraged that we saw some dip in overall poverty levels (child poverty nationwide declined from 21.8% in 2012 to 19.9% in 2013). There are a couple things the average person wouldn't necessarily think of. One is that even though the overall rate is down, when you break it out by geographic area you get a very different picture. Twenty-two of the states went down (for poverty) and 18 stayed about the same. But 10 states actually increased in their poverty levels. It's varying by region and by state. New Hampshire is now down to 10% of children in poverty. They have the best child-poverty rate, if you will. Mississippi has a third of their kids under the poverty line -- 34%.
The piece that surprised me -- and I have to confess I shouldn't have been as surprised -- was the incredibly high level of child poverty in certain cities. If somebody had asked me what's the highest child poverty rate in any city in the U.S., I would have guessed somewhere around 35%. Detroit has 59% of their children in poverty. Cleveland 54%, Fresno 48%, Memphis 46%, Miami -- Miami! -- 44%.
We're still worse off than we were in 2005, so we've got a long way to go. We're certainly still very poor when compared to other developed countries in terms of our child poverty rate. We don't tend to realize that children who live in neighborhoods where lots of other kids are poor -- even if they live in a family that is above the poverty line -- they actually suffer some of the long-range effects, as if they themselves were in poverty, which is very interesting. The problems that are associated with concentrated poverty go beyond those families that are poor.
If you live in a high-poverty neighborhood, the odds that you will fall down the income ladder as an adult -- that you will be worse off than your parents -- are 52%, on average, even if you're not a child growing up in a poor family yourself.
Me: Is one logical solution to poverty just to give poor people more money?
McCarthy: There's actually pretty good evidence on that from small experiments. Folks are randomly assigned to a group whose income is supplemented. You can see the impact even at relatively small differences in income -- $3,000 or $4,000 per year. There have been some folks who are tracked longitudinally over time, and in fact their children do better than a group of folks who have all the other characteristics being the same, except they don't have that extra $3,000 or $4,000 per year.
There is really something to that old Hemingway and Fitzgerald question of, "What's the difference between us and rich folks?" "They have more money." Well, there's something to the notion that difference between poor folks and folks who aren't so poor in terms of how their kids do is the poor folks don't have as much money.
The U.S. has long had a strong value around self-reliance, self-sufficiency and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It kind of goes to the core of the ideal American character. But it's translated into (the idea that) government should do nothing that decreases motivation, makes someone dependent, makes someone less self-reliant etc. Unfortunately, it also sometimes gets conflated with another point of view -- which is that poverty is the fault of the poor, that the reason people are poor is because of poor character, poor upbringing and that they make bad choices.
We basically blame poverty on the poor.
Me: What are some other solutions? What are the specific policies or programs the U.S. should be investing in?
McCarthy: There's a range of things. I like that you said "the U.S." and not just "government." Let's start with government and then talk a little bit about the other sectors. Probably the best anti-poverty measures we have are the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit. They're good because they have broad support. They reward work. They put income in the pockets of families directly in meaningful kinds of ways. Right now, there's a conversation on expanding the earned-income tax credit to include single males, who right now aren't eligible for the EITC. It's only families with children. But as we know, fathers don't always live with their children. There's a movement afoot to expand the EITC, which we think would not only make kids be better off, but you're more likely to have fathers involved with children.
We know from all the research that high-quality early education and early life experiences are critical in terms of putting a kid on a path towards opportunity. Long range, what we should think about is really making sure every child has the opportunity to develop to the full of their potential. Some of the best payoff is investing in home visiting, quality early childcare, early child development programs, Pre-K and early elementary school. There's lots and lots of data that suggest that children who are reading by the third grade are much more likely to be successful in completing high school -- and to go on to be successful.
Over the last year or so, a number of us have begun to focus on slightly new approach that combines all of what I've just talked about -- and simultaneously ... invests in the parent's success as well. We call it a two-generation approach.
We think that employers have an important role to play. The obvious one is paying a family-supporting wage. But there are also all of these other employment policies that allow parents to be parents as well as workers -- that we think will end up making them better workers. Sick time, time off to take care of their kids. Family leave. All of those kinds of things. And of course it all starts with a decent wage.
In this volatile economy, there will be periods of unemployment. I know there's a lot of controversy about unemployment insurance but it's critical. We know there are many folks who pay into the unemployment system but are not eligible for unemployment (insurance) once they get laid off -- because they haven't met the work hours (or) because they're part time.
This is a society-wide kind of issue.
It's not just about government, but the government of course is critical. And I think we've got to support parents as they try to do right by their kids.