By Marian Wright Edelman
“I can’t do a lot of the extra stuff that I would like to do for my kids or with my kids because I just can’t afford to. No vacations. There’s not too much going to the movies or little outings. Even getting school uniforms together is expensive. Sometimes they have to wear stuff from last year. I have a lot of guilt because I can’t provide for them the way that I want to.”
The Children’s Defense Fund recently released our latest report on Ending Child Poverty Now once again showing just how much poverty is hurting our children and nation and sullying our pretensions to be an equal opportunity society. As part of their coverage of this new report The Guardian spoke with several parents struggling to raise children in poverty today including New Orleans mother Sarah Davis. As their story explains, Davis lost her home in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. After attempts to make fresh starts with her three children in Texas, Indiana, the west coast, and Kentucky, she returned home to New Orleans three years ago, but even with a job as a phone operator she wasn’t able to escape poverty. Her family lived in a homeless shelter until a nonprofit agency helped pay the first few months’ rent on a home.
Now half of her salary of less than $1,700 a month goes towards housing. The rest isn’t enough to cover everything else: “A lot of times I have to buy foods that are less expensive to buy but I know are totally disgustingly bad for you. There are a lot of ramen noodles . . . Sometimes I pay just enough on my water or electricity bill to keep it from getting cut off. I always owe no matter what, because I have to have money for other things.” Davis’s youngest daughter has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and needs extra attention, so Davis knows that even if she could work 80 hours a week, that wouldn’t be a good solution either. “If I worked two full-time jobs, then I’m not at home and that falls apart. If I work one full-time job, there’s more structure at home but then I make less money. It’s like, you can’t win like that.”
You can’t win like that and we all lose in a nation that allows millions of children to face the minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day harms of poverty. In 2017 over 12.8 million of our children lived below the official poverty line—$25,094 for a family of four—based only on cash income. Nearly half lived in extreme poverty below half the poverty line. Like Davis’s children, more than two-thirds of poor children in related families live with an adult who works and more than a third live with an adult who works full-time year round. Poverty stacks the odds against children and stalks them down every avenue of their lives. As our latest national plea to end child poverty now carefully documents, poverty places children at risk of hunger, homelessness, sickness, violence, educational failure and family stress and too often deprives them of positive early childhood experiences and opportunities that prepare more affluent children for school, college and work. Poverty wears down children’s emotional reserves, saps their spirits and confidence and threatens their potential and aspirations. From infancy through adulthood poverty gnaws away at child resiliency and hope and harms them for life.
Beyond its individual human costs, child poverty has huge economic costs for all of us. One study shows the lost productivity and extra health and crime costs stemming from child poverty add up to about $700 billion a year, or 3.5 percent of GDP. Another study found eliminating child poverty between the prenatal and age 5 years would increase lifetime earnings between $53,000 and $100,000 a child—a total lifetime benefit of $20 to $36 billion for all babies born in a given year. And we cannot measure the countless innovations and discoveries that never occur because so much child potential is lost.
Child poverty also fuels a destructive intergenerational cycle of poverty with compounding effects that can have lasting consequences into adulthood. Children who grow up poor have a harder time escaping poverty as adults. Research shows people who experienced poverty at any point during childhood are more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 as those who were never poor as children. The longer a child is poor, the greater her risk of becoming a poor adult. A 2017 Urban Institute report found only 20 percent of children who spent half their childhoods in poverty were consistently working or in school during their twenties.
No families should have to fight so desperately to beat the odds in this battle that is so hard to win in a nation with the largest economy in the world. We must act now to save our children’s lives and our nation’s soul. Inaction is not an option; poverty is far too costly for our children and nation to continue. Ending Child Poverty Now shows we already have the solutions and that by investing just a small percentage of our federal budget into existing programs and policies, we can make significant progress and rescue many child lives from stunted futures. We just need the moral decency, political will and economic common sense to do it.
Marian Wright Edelman is President Emeritus of the Children's Defense Fund.