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Trump’s War on the Poor Includes Our Children (February 4, 2020)
- The plight of impoverished children anywhere should evoke sympathy, exemplifying as it does the suffering of the innocent and defenseless. Poverty among children in a wealthy country like the United States, however, should summon shame and outrage as well. Unlike poor countries (sometimes run by leaders more interested in lining their pockets than anything else), what excuse does the United States have for its striking levels of child poverty? After all, it has the world’s 10th highest per capita income at $62,795 and an unrivalled gross domestic product (GDP) of $21.3 trillion. Despite that, in 2020, an estimated 11.9 million American kids—16.2 percent of the total—live below the official poverty line, which is a paltry $25,701 for a family of four with two kids. Put another way, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, kids now constitute one-third of the 38.1 million Americans classified as poor and 70 percent of them have at least one working parent—so poverty can’t be chalked up to parental indolence.
- The conservative response to all this remains predictable: You can’t solve complex social problems like child poverty by throwing money at them. Besides, government antipoverty programs only foster dependence and create bloated bureaucracies without solving the problem. It matters little that the success of American social programs proves this claim to be flat-out false.
- Imagine, for a moment, this scenario: a 200-meter footrace in which the starting blocks of some competitors are placed 75 meters behind the others. Barring an Olympic-caliber runner, those who started way in front will naturally win. Now, think of that as an analogy for the predicament that American kids born in poverty face through no fault of their own. They may be smart and diligent, their parents may do their best to care for them, but they begin life with a huge handicap. As a start, the nutrition of poor children will generally be inferior to that of other kids. No surprise there, but here’s what’s not common knowledge: A childhood nutritional deficit matters for years afterwards, possibly for life. [...] Indeed, the process starts even earlier. Poor mothers may themselves have nutritional deficiencies that increase their risk of having babies with low birth weights. That, in turn, can have long-term effects on children’s health, what level of education they reach, and their future incomes since the quality of nutrition affects brain size, concentration, and cognitive capacity. It also increases the chances of having learning disabilities and experiencing mental health problems. Poor children are likely to be less healthy in other ways as well, for reasons that range from having a greater susceptibility to asthma to higher concentrations of lead in their blood. Moreover, poor families find it harder to get good health care. And add one more thing: in our zip-code-influenced public-school system, such children are likely to attend schools with far fewer resources than those in more affluent neighborhoods.
- Our national opioid problem also affects the well-being of children in a striking fashion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2008 and 2012, a third of women in their childbearing years filled opioid-based medication prescriptions in pharmacies and an estimated 14 percent–22 percent of them were pregnant. The result: an alarming increase in the number of babies exposed to opioids in utero and experiencing withdrawal symptoms at birth, which is also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, in medical lingo. [...] (Given the ongoing opioid crisis, it’s unlikely that things have improved in recent years.) And the complications attributable to NAS don’t stop with birth. Though the research remains at an early stage—the opioid crisis only began in the early 1990s—it suggests that the ill effects of NAS extend well beyond infancy and include impaired cognitive and motor skills, respiratory ailments, learning disabilities, difficulty maintaining intellectual focus, and behavioral traits that make productive interaction with others harder. At this point, you won’t be surprised to learn that NAS and child poverty are connected. Prescription opioid use rates are much higher for women on Medicaid, who are more likely to be poor than those with private insurance. Moreover, the abuse of, and overdose deaths from, opioids (whether obtained through prescriptions or illegally) have been far more widespread among the poor.
- Combine all of this and here’s the picture: From the months before birth on, poverty diminishes opportunity, capacity, and agency and its consequences reach into adulthood. While that rigged footrace of mine was imaginary, child poverty certainly does ensure a future-rigged society. The good news (though not in Donald Trump’s America): The race to a half-decent life (or better) doesn’t have to be rigged.
- Can children born into poverty defy the odds, realize their potential, and lead fulfilling lives? Conservatives will point to stories of people who cleared all the obstacles created by child poverty as proof that the real solution is hard work. But let’s be clear: Poor children shouldn’t have to find themselves on a tilted playing field from the first moments of their lives. Individual success stories aside, Americans raised in poor families do markedly less well compared to those from middle class or affluent homes—and it doesn’t matter whether you choose college attendance, employment rates, or future household income as your measure. And the longer they live in poverty the worse the odds that they’ll escape it in adulthood; for one thing, they’re far less likely to finish high school or attend college than their more fortunate peers. [...] Yet childhood circumstances can be (and have been) changed—and the sorts of government programs that conservatives love to savage have helped enormously in that process.
- Our own history and that of other wealthy countries show that child poverty is anything but an unalterable reality. The record also shows that changing it requires mobilizing funds of the sort now being wasted on ventures like America’s multitrillion-dollar forever wars.
- Programs that reduce child poverty help even in years when poor or near-poor parents gain and, of course, are critical in bad times, since sooner or later booming job markets also bust.
- The Trump administration has, for good measure, rewritten the eligibility rules for such programs in order to lower the number of people who qualify. The supposed goal: to cut costs by reducing dependence on government. (Never mind the subsidies and tax loopholes Trump’s crew has created for corporations and the super wealthy, which add up to many billions of dollars in spending and lost revenue.)
- Even before Donald Trump’s election, only one-sixth of eligible families with kids received assistance for childcare and a paltry one-fifth got housing subsidies. Yet his administration arrived prepared to put programs that helped some of them pay for housing and childcare on the chopping block. No point in such families looking to him for a hand in the future. He won’t be building any Trump Towers for them. Whatever “Make America Great Again” may mean, it certainly doesn’t involve helping America’s poor kids. As long as Donald Trump oversees their race into life, they’ll find themselves ever farther from the starting line.
- Rajan Menon's profile at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
- Rajan Menon's profile at the City University of New York