To End the Rise of Kids in Poverty? Jobs
Peter Edelman, Georgetown law professor and renown expert in children and family issues, says the best way to end the slide of more kids into poverty is creating more living-wage jobs for their parents. His forth-coming book is “So Rich, So Poor,” published by The New Press. Here, he shares a few thoughts:
Q: Child poverty in the United States remains an enormous problem. How would you quantify it in terms of what ignoring it means to the fabric of the country?
More than 20 percent of children live in poverty, and more than 36 percent of the extremely poor (people with incomes below half the poverty line, or below $9,000 a year for a family of three) are children. Also, more than half of the children in this country under age 6 who live in a household where there’s a single mom are poor. That’s another stunning number.
We have to invest in all children. Children from low-income families deserve schooling that is as good as the public school attended by a child in the suburbs – better, really, to make up for the disadvantages that stem from their economic status. It needs to start with prenatal care for the mother and go on through early childhood, so children are ready for school when they get there at age 5. Every child can learn but, sad to say, not every school lives up to its obligation to teach well.
Investing in the future of children is an investment in the country’s future. My colleague, the labor economist Harry Holzer, has shown that the cost of sustained childhood poverty is more than $500 billion per year, or 4 percent of GDP in terms of crime, public benefits, and lost consumption.
Q: Where is the country failing these children the most – through educational opportunities? Family supports? Job creation for parents? Job training for high school grads? Political disinterest? Institutional racism/classism?
The basic building blocks of an antipoverty strategy are good jobs, a safety net, and investing in children. We are failing children by running an economy that does not offer enough jobs which provide a living wage, by not offering a decent safety net, by not fulfilling our social responsibility to make sure that health care, affordable housing, and affordable child care are available, and by not ensuring that every child goes to a good school. Issues of race and gender cut across everything.
Q: Is it because of a lack of dollars or a lack of political will?
We are an enormously wealthy country. We have the resources. We have done a great deal to ameliorate poverty over the past half century. There would be 35 to 40 million more people in poverty if we had not done what we have done. The problem since the 1970s has been the weakness of wages for workers in the entire bottom half of the income distribution and especially in the bottom 20 percent. The political will has been there in considerable measure. Look at food stamps, Medicaid (and especially President Obama’s Affordable Care Act), housing vouchers, Pell grants, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and many other programs. The answer to poverty, most importantly, is good jobs—and to go with that, the education and training that are necessary for all people to be qualified for those jobs. The political will that we need, most fundamentally, is the attention to our economy and fiscal policy to increase the number of good jobs and to increase contribution that people at the very top make to the revenues that we need to run the country.
Q: Nonetheless, these issues are not going away. At a time Congress is cutting programs and resisting raising revenue, how does the nation address these critical needs?
We need leadership and a public understanding that we are currently headed in the wrong direction to deal with the continuing crisis in employment.
Q: If major program reduction/elimination remains part of the political landscape for the next few years, what concerns you the most?
There will be a new lost generation of children who grow up without a fair chance at success in our economy and our country.
Q: How can states, municipal governments or nonprofit organizations pick up some of the slack. Or can they, to make any appreciable difference?
States and municipal governments are broke now, too. Nonprofits are struggling. We need to get our economy on the right track. On the other hand, it’s always true that people who work with low-income families or volunteer can make a difference.
Q: In her book, “The Flat World and Education,” Linda Darling-Hammond just about advocates blowing up our current public education system to replace it with a structure designed to level the playing field to educate all children, not just those living in high-income suburbs. Do you agree?
Sort of. The premise is right – level the playing field to educate all children. Blowing up? I don’t know what that means. We need effective leadership and effective teaching in every public school system and every school. I think charter schools are part of the answer provided they are fully accountable, but there is no alternative to fixing the public schools.
Q: Two years ago, we heard a lot about job creation as a key to jump-starting the economy. You have cited job creation as an important tool to help stabilize families. Now, the debate in Washington centers on debt reduction. How can debt reduction play a meaningful role in helping raise families out of poverty?
Ultimately, getting our fiscal house in order is good for everyone. When President Clinton balanced the budget, it created great confidence among both business and consumers. For the last half of the 1990s we had real growth that reached all the way to the bottom of the income continuum. Debt reduction is wrong right now. We are still in recession, whether that is technically true or not. We need to help states and cities stop their fiscal hemorrhage and not lay off so many workers. We need to create jobs that work on our infrastructure and on taking care of children and building houses and doing conservation work and much more. We should close the deficit but not until we have gotten the economy back on its feet.
Q: Assuming there is a finite amount of money available to reduce the number of families living in poverty, where would you start spending it?
There is an emergency when you have 19 million people in extreme poverty and 6 million people whose only income is food stamps, which is about a third of the poverty line – about $6,000 for a family of three. That’s the first order of business.
Q: Given the magnitude of the current problem – 1 in 5 children living in poverty – have you seen anything in the form of legislation, projects, programs or philanthropy that makes enough of a difference to give you hope for the future. Or four years from now, are we going to learn that 1 in 4 children live in poverty?
President Obama’s extension of Medicaid to 16 million more low-income people gives me hope. The interest and commitment of so many people in school reform – President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan and many in the private sector and thousands of young people who go into Teach for America and are really the new civil right movement in our country – give me enormous hope. The projects and programs that are building communities and families and children in every area of the country give me hope. The answers are not just in Washington. We need public policy at all levels, but we need the civic participation of people everywhere, and we need everyone to take responsibility for themselves and their children as well to help others in whatever way they can.