Help for At-Risk Kids: ‘We’re in it for the long slog’
In nearly two decades with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the last two years as president and chief executive, Patrick McCarthy has never seen the landscape for America’s at-risk children and families quite so alarming.
A global recession, cheap labor in developing countries, a soaring U.S. budget deficit, high rates of unemployment and foreclosure, political polarization – these are the forces, he said, that are conspiring against the country’s most vulnerable, threatening to push the next generation toward a dubious place in American history: the first faring worse than the previous generation.
“The most disturbing trend I see is the sense of social mobility being diminished,” McCarthy said, echoing the Foundation’s latest Kids Count report, one of the nation’s most authoritative annual examinations of America’s well-being.
“You work hard, you use all the talents you have to do okay, and you’re seeing more and more kids in poverty or in very low income families. The recession has stripped away from the trends of the last 20 or 30 years that allow our kids and grandkids to do better than we did. And what worries me most about that is that that’s what has always held us together as a country, the American creed, that if you work hard, you can make it.”
A few major findings from the 2011 Kids Count report:
- The percentage of children living in poverty (in 2009, income below $21,756 for a family of two adults and two children) rose to 20 percent in 2009 from 17 percent in 2000, an increase of about 2.4. (The U.S. Census bureau says the percentage of people under 18 years of age living under the poverty level increased to 22 percent in 2010 from 16.2 percent in 2000, a rise of almost 36 percent.)
- The percentage of children living in single-parent families increased to 34 percent in 2009 from 31 percent in 2000, a rise of 3.1 million children to a total of nearly 24 million.
- In 2009, 9 percent of teens between the ages of 16 and 19, representing 1.6 million people, were neither enrolled in school nor working. That was a 13 percent increase over 2008.
The downward trends are now taking on even greater urgency. As another election cycle moves into high gear, McCarthy worries that a spotlight shining on the plight of America’s struggling families remains too diffuse for elected officials and policy makers to recognize the dire state of circumstances affecting so many American families, threatening America’s global competitiveness.
How to change all this?
He concedes it will be neither easy nor fast.
“There are some policy areas where there is a fair amount of political consensus,” he said, citing government programs that help young people to delay pregnancy, improve prenatal care and expand pre-school learning.
He sees hope in continuation of “two generation strategies,” like the earned income tax credit and child tax credits, which help move families out of poverty. He sees further possibilities in job creation through infrastructure programs, given the low interest rates for financing such projects, and a growing number of community colleges with programs that better prepare students for job placement.
Beyond that, it’s been left to foundations and private organizations to fill in the gaps.
As one example, he cited the work of Opportunity Nation, a coalition of nearly 200 businesses, non-profits, educational institution, and military organizations that is taking a bipartisan approach to creating social mobility and stronger communities through better jobs and a more highly-skilled workforce.
McCarthy also said his foundation has plans in 2012 for two reports, one focusing on improving conditions that lead to higher employment for people aged 16 to 24, and the other to focus on supporting “kinship care,” the need to help extended family members caring for abused and neglected children.
But whatever the success existing programs have, he said, the challenge for all groups engaged in driving down the poverty and at-risk numbers is raising awareness of the issues, pushing them into a wider debate by convincing candidates that the future of the country depends on it.
So far, it’s not happening enough, he said, with election-year debates more focused on such big ticket items as Medicare, Medicaid, health care reform, defense spending and driving down the overall budget deficit.
And making things ever more difficult McCarthy said, is a political climate in which compromise and bipartisanship remain elusive.
“I do think we’re in it for the long slog,” McCarthy said, a reference to raising families out of poverty and at-risk circumstances. “Unlike in the 60s, 70s or even the 80s, our destiny is tied to the world economy in ways we’ve never experienced before. Clearly, it’s a more complicated world. You combine that with finding the political will to deal with kids and their families, it’s going to be a heavy lift.”