Unemployment numbers are in once again, and it seems employers have quit firing but haven’t quite resumed hiring yet. In this economy, we’ll take every bit of incremental progress we can take I suppose. But most economists say we’re in for high unemployment for several more years.
We hear a lot about joblessness and housing woes — and rightly so. People are hurting. But lost in this conversation is a fundamentally more sobering statistic: child poverty.
(I know, most people on Friday offer funny little games or humorous group-blogging feats. Not me: Friday is “social science” day! While I’m not a social scientist–as I was haughtily reminded by my coauthor– I do play one on tv.)
I just finished a project called Illinois KidsCount. It’s part of the national KidsCount books put out by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Every year, states tally up all the indicators of child well-being, like poverty, health, education, crime, etc. The goal is to keep tabs on how we’re doing as a nation in supporting our children.
And today, times are tough for everyone, but especially kids. In Illinois, which is a state that has both rural areas and big cities and so is pretty representative of the nation as a whole, 17% of children are in poverty–and that was in 2008, the latest data available. Most experts think that today, about 19-20% of kids nationally are in poverty in the state, and the tally is climbing.
I’ll remind you what poverty is these days: for a family of four (mom, dad, two kids, it means living on about $22,000 a year. A year!) Median rent in Cook County is $880 a month. That’s about 40% of the budget right there.
I can bombard with statistics all day. But it’s the personal stories of poverty that get to me. I interviewed a group of women on the West Side of Chicago back in September of last year. They all were part of a neighborhood organization, COFI, that works to better their community, mainly so their children can lead better lives.
A woman’s husband had been working 60-70 hours a week for $8.40 an hour in a paper factory prior to the recession. His boss recently cut his hours back to 32 a week. Between rent, gas, and the electric bill, the mother of four says, “it’s too much for us.” Quietly, she tells me she feels she is a burden to her family. The medications and frequent doctor’s visits for her heart condition are draining their budget. Her husband, she says, basically hands over his check to pay for her condition. At night, she lays awake worrying but tries to hide her fears from family, not wanting to burden them again.
Another mother in her early thirties says that after paying the utilities and rent, it’s hard to keep a gallon of milk in the refrigerator. She was worried what the winter would be like, hoping they could manage to keep the heat on. Another’s husband works only three days a week now, and they have a hard time paying for the CTA bus, which her son must take everyday to school. He often goes without lunch money. Many teens, in fact, want to drop out of school and go to work to help their families. A woman confesses they are behind three months in the rent since her husband lost his job. They fear they and their four children will be evicted soon. Another mother who works in a bread factory had her hours steadily pared back until she was recently laid off. The gas is cut off, the house is cold, and she says, they cannot get it turned back on because they have too many back-payments due. Another young mother recently decided to stop taking her medicine for diabetes to save money.
Note– these mothers are all married and their husbands are working.
Most are too proud to turn to the government. “A lot of people have pride,” says one woman, “and they don’t ask for help. But we have pride for all the wrong reasons.”
You can see how poverty grinds you down. For children, it has long-lasting effects in ways both big and small. When families are poor, they struggle to put food on the table and pay the rent. The strain is palpable. Tempers flare, stress undermines parenting. Health declines. The jobs poor families take often have crazy hours, at night, on weekends; an afternoon shift this week, and evening shift next. It makes finding child care nearly impossible. Dora, a mother that a researcher I know interviewed, had to rely on her 10-year-old to care for the toddler while Dora worked. Needless to say, hot dogs for dinner and the 10-year-old wasn’t doing any of her schoolwork. Another married mother, Tamar, whom Kathy Newman interviewed in The Missing Class, would leave early in the morning to take two busses across town to work for roughly minimum wage. At the end of the day, she’d flop in her chair too exhausted to do much of anything. Her son Omar meanwhile was out getting into trouble. (all this is in a book I ghosted called “Mothers’ Work and Children’s Lives (W.E. Upjohn Press).
One thing is certain: poverty in childhood has lasting effects. Children who grow up in poverty do less well in school (and more often drop out completely). As a result, they struggle in the job market later in life. They have more health and mental health problems as children and as adults. Greg Duncan and Harry Holzer, two economists who focus on low-income families, estimate that child poverty costs this country $500 billion a year, or about 4% of our GDP. That’s the toll from poorer health, later imprisonment, higher public assistance costs, and other long-term effects.
The most sobering statistic in my mind is the fact that, based on the patterns in past recessions, child poverty will likely rise to a whopping 24% by 2012 and hang tight above 22% for at least another five years after that.
One in four children living on less than $20,000 a year in the land of plenty is shameful. And costly. (and don’t get me started on the huge divides by race. Ok, too late: nearly four in ten (!) black kids in Illinois were in poverty in 2008). Let that one sink in. And we wonder why our public schools struggle.
The answers you ask? Better wages, unionization to advocate for better benefits and pay, clearer routes from high school to work for kids who are not college-bound, and I’m afraid to say it, higher taxes this year, at least in Illinois. We have a budget deficit that is the size of four major public programs combined. We can’t slash services for the families I interviewed, cut them off completely. We just can’t. The long-term costs are simply too high. And the personal costs to a child’s life are not something I want on my conscience just so I can save a couple hundred dollars on my tax bill. I can sacrifice a couple meals out at nice restaurants to cover that higher tax bill.