As the economic downturn lingers, a striking characteristic is just how widespread its impact still is. Recent reports state that more Americans are now living in poverty in the suburbs than in cities—a trend that has increased dramatically during the recession. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of families who once donated to food pantries or other organizations serving the poor who now need to turn to these same places for help themselves. As more Americans experience economic uncertainty, the face of poverty in our nation today is changing. The harmful threats from the current recession which are leaving so many families newly desperate and at wits end are not new for millions of chronically poor children.
A recent study by scholars at the Urban Institute focused on the dangerous effects of “persistent poverty” so many children experience. It notes that nearly half of all children born into poverty will be persistently poor, meaning they will be poor for at least half of their childhoods. The risk of persistent poverty is especially great for Black children, who are more likely to be born poor: 40 percent of Black children are poor at birth, compared to eight percent of White children. Black children are seven times more likely than White children to be persistently poor; more than two-thirds of Black children who are poor at birth will be poor for at least half of their childhoods.
Being born into poverty and living in persistent poverty put children at tremendous risk, and the cumulative effects often mean especially negative outcomes. Being born poor is a significant predictor of adult as well as child poverty: the same study reports that while just four percent of children born into non-poor families end up spending at least half their early adult years in poverty, 21 percent of children born poor will spend a significant amount of their early adulthood in poverty. These children have a range of worse adult outcomes than children born into higher-income families. Children who are born poor and live in persistent poverty are more likely to drop out of high school, experience teen pregnancy, and have unstable employment as young adults. Every year children spend living in poverty further erodes their future potential. The deck is stacked against them before they’ve taken their first breath.
It’s clear that the Great Recession has thrust millions of children and families into poverty—many in extreme poverty—jeopardizing the promise of a productive future for children and our nation. Millions more are likely to suffer long-term effects of the recession and more will become mired in persistent poverty—unless and until we have the courage to act decisively and invest in the future of our most vulnerable children. As a first step, we must not allow Congress to continue the Bush tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of this year for the richest two percent of taxpayers. Continuing tax cuts for individuals with incomes under $200,000 and families under $250,000, as President Obama proposes to do, will assist 98 percent of tax filers and help jumpstart the economy since those benefiting will likely spend what they receive. With 15.5 million children living in poverty, there is no rational or sensible argument for spending an additional $68 billion a year, $700 billion over ten years, to reward the very richest people with an average tax cut of more than $310,000. These multimillionaires, with average incomes of $6 million, saw their fortunes grow enormously these last several years while millions of children and families fell backwards. These funds could give millions of poor children a head start in life by enrolling all 4.2 million eligible infants and toddlers in Early Head Start and all 2.1 million eligible three- to five-year-olds in the Head Start program. Currently only three percent of eligible children are enrolled in Early Head Start and just over 40 percent of eligible children are enrolled in Head Start.
As Congress returns, it must help maintain extra supports for low income children and families. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Fund, which has created more than 250,000 short-term jobs for low-income parents, must be extended before it expires at the end of the year. Improvements in the Child and Earned Income Tax Credits must be made permanent to help low and middle income families make ends meet. All of these investments make an enormous difference in the lives of millions of children. Multimillionaires should get at the end of the line for government help. They’ve had far more than their fair share.