Nathaniel Johnson, Staff Writer
With over one in five of its children in poverty, the United States has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world. While poverty in wealthy countries is itself a topic of much discussion, child poverty is particularly important because of its troubling long-term effects.
Compared with those who grew up in families earning at or above median income, people who experience poverty during their first 5 years are twice as likely to have poor health. They earn, on average, half as much and are twice as likely to be arrested. The effects of poverty on education are even more striking. Children who are poor for just half of their childhoods are 90 percent more likely to enter their 20s without a high school diploma. According to a study by the Educational Testing Service, two-year-olds who live in poverty show lower levels of listening comprehension than those who do not live in poverty. Four-year-olds who live in poverty show levels of proficiency 50 percent lower than those of children not in poverty. Prospects are even bleaker for specific demographic groups. Black and Hispanic children are significantly more likely to be poor and are more exposed to the effects of poverty in school than are their white peers. The average black student attends a school where two-thirds of the students are poor. Children in single-mother families are nearly four times more likely to be poor than those born to married-couple households.
Despite the rather grim outlook, there is much we can do. Social spending plays a key role in reducing child poverty. The US Federal Government funds programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit), which provide food to low-income families and tax rebates to low-income workers respectively. SNAP helps feed nearly 30 percent of the nation’s children and the EITC lifts nearly 5 million children out of poverty. In addition, the US spends nearly $30 billion on preschool programs, including pre-K education; early childhood education is an extremely effective way of alleviating the long-term effects of child poverty. Despite these efforts, the US is still behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to social welfare programs. Social expenditures account for a smaller share of GDP in the US than they do in other countries. The US is also one of the few developed countries to lack paid family leave and universal healthcare.
All this being said, there is no public policy panacea for this problem. One important factor in the US’s above-average child poverty rate is simply that poor people in the US earn less than poor people in Europe. The poorest fifth of US children live in families that earn, on average, a quarter less than the poorest fifth in Europe do. There is still work to be done, however, when it comes to social welfare in the US.
At its core, child poverty is an issue of opportunity. To break the cycle of poverty is to ensure that all children are given equal opportunity. Building government policies that are aimed at reducing child poverty is an important step towards ensuring this opportunity.