The Scourge of Childhood Poverty

I have been reading with interest the new book Poorly Understood: What America Gets Wrong About Poverty (Oxford UP), by Mark Robert Rank, Lawrence M. Eppard, and Heather E. Bullock. (Rank is a professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.)

As the authors say, “Few topics have as many myths, stereotypes, and misperceptions surrounding them as that of poverty in America. […] Our current era of fake news, alternative facts, and media partisanship has led to a breeding ground for all types of myths gaining traction and legitimacy. The time would appear right to set the record straight.”

An accompanying website has several features, including a “Risk Calculator” for you to see how likely you, or someone you do or do not know, are to sink into poverty.

One of the most striking chapters is on the economic cost of poverty to American children. Obviously their immediate physical and mental health are affected, but the effects begin to snowball—poor education, lack of access to medical care, exposure to crime—until the society finds that it has shortchanged its own potential and is paying tremendous amounts of money, and encountering enormous disruptions, for what might have been prevented. In 2015, the authors show, the effects of “childhood poverty in the United States was costing the nation $1.03 trillion a year…5.4 percent of the U.S. annual GDP.”

Astonishingly, that figure represents “28 percent of the entire budget spent by the federal government” that year.

I can attest to the long-lasting effects of childhood poverty; by my best guess, there was a time when my mother and I lived at about 70% of the poverty line for a family of two, or about a thousand dollars a month in today’s dollars. As you might imagine, neither of us had great nutrition or medical care. Everybody went to the same school, which was taxpayer-funded, as was the public library, so that was a relatively level field. But travel to distant places; a comfortable home with working appliances, lights, and heat; most material goods; and social connections for jobs and other opportunities were nonexistent. My only hope for college was the army, a traditional way out of town for the poor, which can put young people years behind their peers in getting established.

The 2018 St. Louis statistics on child well-being are outrageous. Black children in the city are 100 times more likely to visit ERs for asthma-related problems than white children, and the numbers are nearly as bad for youth STDs. In all categories, from food insecurity to juvenile referrals to court, Black children of St. Louis suffer an inordinately large degree of financially-related disparity, which will eat into their futures.

I do not know when the manuscript for Poorly Understood was deposited to the press, but the authors seem to anticipate the Biden administration’s focus on reducing childhood poverty. The authors point to the Census Bureau’s number (in 2015, again) of $86.9 billion, with which “every American household with younger than 18 years in poverty could be raised out of poverty.” [sic]

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan currently offers only a year of monthly child allowances, which Columbia estimated would reduce American childhood poverty by half, if extended. Biden is also proposing universal access to pre-K childcare; stable cost for high-quality daycare; and expanded home healthcare visits.

It’s a start.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.