By Charles Bruner
The 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” has raised attention to the need to again address poverty as a public issue — of concern to the country’s future.
Measured in terms of senior poverty, the War on Poverty produced results. Measured in terms of child poverty, however, results have not kept pace with other demographic trends affecting children and their families.
In short, since 1966, the poverty rate among seniors has declined by two-thirds, while for young children, it has risen by one-fifth.
The solutions to poverty among seniors included increased income security through Medicare and Social Security benefits and through other pension programs. In fact, seniors today have greater economic security than at any time in the country’s history and hold a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth.
The solutions to child poverty, however, are not as straightforward. Children are not in poverty because of their own earnings and resources, but because of their parents’ situations. Unlike seniors, the general public expectation is that parents should be working and assuming personal responsibility to meet their children’s economic needs.
Declining real wages during this 50-year period for those without a college education coupled with rising rates of single parenting (when two incomes increasingly are needed to raise a family) have challenged efforts to reduce child poverty through employment alone.
The growing diversity of the young child population and the segregation of a disproportionate number of poor children within distressed neighborhoods also have contributed to the persistence of child poverty.
THE ROOT CAUSES
It is not poverty per se that puts children at risk. Rather, it is the lack of predictability of resources, the stress that poverty brings and the increased likelihood of early childhood adversity that contribute to poor children’s particular vulnerability. Young children are the age group most likely to be poor in American society, and they are the age group where the potential effects of poverty are the greatest.
Eliminating poverty among young children can seem like a daunting task, but it is an essential one for our future. It also requires a long-term perspective.
If we can equip young children in poverty to grow up and become educated, healthy and successful adults, they will be able to raise their own children well and not in poverty.
It might be difficult to immediately raise the parental income for those with young children to be above the poverty line, but we can do more to ensure that there are services and supports available to those families so their children can succeed.
There is no silver bullet to end child poverty or equip children in poverty to succeed. It will require multiple actions and investments.
If you agree with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett that men must play a much stronger role as caregivers and providers for their children, there is room for increased attention to fatherhood initiatives that will bring absent dads more into the lives of their children.
The simple fact is that, in 21st century America, it takes two incomes for most families to raise the next generation.
If you agree with President Barack Obama (and, for that matter former presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush) that all children deserve high-quality preschool experiences, there is room for federal initiatives such as Strong Start for Children to help narrow the gap in school readiness.
If you are concerned there are too few “proven programs” that produce results, there is room for investing in innovation and the diffusion of exemplary programs and practice, particularly around home visiting and family support. There is a clear “evidence-based need” to find solutions, and this requires investment in social and policy entrepreneurship.
If you recognize the mismatch between what parents can afford to pay for child care and what it takes to ensure decent and reliable care, there is room for enhancements to both the child care subsidy program and the child and dependent care tax credit, as well as supports to increase the skills and compensation of the child care workforce.
If you believe “it takes a village to raise a child,” there are approaches to village building and community support for young children that deserve attention through both the public and private sectors, with libraries, museums and community centers playing essential roles.
If you believe parents who want to stay at home to care for their kids when they are young should be able to do so, there are family leave policies and transfer payment supports such as the Earned Income Tax Credit that can enable them to do so.
If you believe “parents are their child’s first and most important teacher, nurse, safety officer and guide to the world,” there are voluntary programs that have shown how to strengthen families in ensuring children are better protected and nurtured in these critical youngest years.
If we look at poverty as generational, the key marker should be whether the children born today, when they are 25, will be ready to raise their own children in home environments where poverty and its marginalization are not barriers to those children’s success. This probably will require investments in all of the above.
While research increasingly shows that the greatest returns on investment are those made in young children, this is where our nation invests the least. For every dollar now invested in the education and development of each school-aged child, society invests only 25 cents in each preschooler and a scant 7 cents in each infant and toddler.
Bennett and Obama both agree that, if children grow up to succeed educationally, start their careers, get married and only then have children and start their own families, they and their own children’s future will be bright.
We need to make sure that this becomes the trajectory of growth starting at birth, reinforced by children experiencing opportunity in their lives for such fulfillment as they grow and explore the world.
It might take another generation and another quarter century to truly end poverty and its debilitating effects — but only if we start today. Ultimately, this requires greatest attention to those starting out their lives. Theirs are eyes looking at the world with hope and expectation.
Let us make sure we develop public policies that support and strengthen their families and villages in their fundamental roles so each child’s future is bright. They need the opportunity and the expectation that they will succeed.Charles Bruner is a former Iowa legislator and received his Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University. He heads the Child and Family Policy Center, a policy and research organization in Des Moines. Comments: email@example.com