Five Things You Might Have Missed on ‘Poverty Day’

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following post appeared first in Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” blog.


Puerto Rico Homeless
(AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

The annual release of the US Census poverty data is the one day you can be sure the mainstream media will turn their attention to poverty. This year was no exception when Poverty Day arrived last Tuesday. Amidst the frenzy of coverage of the new data, here are five things you may have missed:

1) A Crisis for Children of Color Under Age 5

Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten, a campaign to cut poverty in half in ten years, notes “crisis levels of poverty” for children of color under age 5, including more than 42 percent of African-American children and 37 percent of Latino children living below the poverty line. The Children’s Defense Fund also highlighted disturbing statistics across the nation regarding poverty levels of children of color under age 6.

Boteach points out that toxic stress associated with persistent poverty affects brain development in children, and leads to adverse outcomes in education, health and worker productivity when those children reach adulthood. We also know that modest investments in young children can offset some of those negative effects, but we currently are moving in the opposite direction.

Boteach references a new report from First Focus — a bipartisan organization that advocates for investments in children and families — which finds that “in 2013 alone, sequestration will cut $4.2 billion of funding for children concentrated in the areas of education, early learning and housing, and Congress is considering a budget plan that would lock in or deepen these cuts for next year.” The report also finds that federal spending on children decreased last year by $28 billion, or 7 percent — the largest reduction since the early 1980s. Early education and childcare saw a particularly deep cut of 12 percent, and housing was cut by 6 percent.

“These data could not be timelier,” writes Boteach. “They show structural threats to our economic competitiveness owing to high rates of poverty among young children of color — who would be badly hurt by Congress locking in or deepening the sequester cuts.”

2) We Could End Child Poverty

Austin Nichols, senior research associate at Urban Institute, writes that a monthly benefit for every child is “now common across developed countries, with amounts of about $140 a month in the UK, $190 in Ireland, $130 in Japan, $160 in Sweden and $250 in Germany.” He suggests that a monthly benefit of $400 for every child in the US would cut child poverty by more than half.

“If we issued a $400 monthly payment to each child, and cut tax subsidies for children in higher-income families, we would cut child poverty from 22 percent to below 10 percent,” writes Nichols. “If we further guaranteed one worker per family a job paying $15,000 a year, and each family participated, child poverty would drop to under 1 percent.”

Nichols suggests that even a $150 per month child benefit would lower child poverty from 22 percent to below 17 percent; and adding the job guarantee would reduce child poverty to 8 percent.

While Nichols is aware that there is no chance for this kind of change at the federal level, he writes that “a few states could try out a new taxable child benefit paid to all families.”

3) Poverty’s Gender Gap and the Safety Net

Tim Casey, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest organization that advocates on behalf of the legal rights of women and girls, reports that women were 32 percent more likely to be poor than men, and had a poverty rate of 14.5 percent compared to 11 percent for men.

“About one of every seven women was poor, compared to about one of every nine men. Single mothers were 81 percent more likely to be poor than single fathers, aged women were 67 percent more likely to be poor than aged men and employed women were 31 percent more likely to be poor than employed men,” writes Casey. “At every level of educational attainment women were substantially more likely to be poor than men.”

Elizabeth Grayer, president of Legal Momentum said that the “high poverty rate” and a “continuing gender poverty gap” point to “the need for a social safety net that is accessible and adequate.” She urges Congress to reject any food stamp cuts that would increase hunger and hardship, and to “enact sorely needed improvements in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) [cash assistance] program that would raise sub-poverty benefit levels and reduce the barriers that prevent eligible families from accessing benefits.”

Currently, for every 100 families living in poverty, approximately 27 receive TANF cash assistance; down from 68 in 1996.

4) Vicious Cycle of Long-Term Unemployment and Poverty

The Urban Institute’s Nichols and Zach McDade, research associate, note that “4.2 million Americans — 37 percent of the unemployed — have been jobless for longer than six months,” the highest rate “by far” in the last sixty years.

Nichols and McDade suggest that the “relationship between growing long-term unemployment and poverty runs both ways, where poverty can reinforce joblessness just like joblessness can increase poverty.”

“The longer one is unemployed, the harder it is to find work,” they write. “Skills erode, professional networks deteriorate, and workers become tainted by a perception of ‘unemployability.’ Long-term unemployment begets longer-term unemployment. Throw poverty into the picture and it’s only worse. Long-term unemployed workers are much more likely to be poor. Poverty makes it more difficult to travel to interviews, pay for child care, or care for one’s health, making the job hunt all the harder.”

Nichols and McDade argue that the cycle can be broken with “some simple policy prescriptions.” “Workforce development programs generally benefit workers with little education and experience (those who are most likely to be long-term unemployed).” They also call for “large-scale public works programs” that “help workers retain their skills, avoid the stigma of long-term unemployment and provide a regular income.”

5) Missed Opportunity: Unemployment Insurance and Poverty

Arloc Sherman, senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says that one significant reason the poverty rate didn’t decline over the last two years is that “we pulled back too quickly on unemployment insurance (UI).”

“Poverty would have fallen from 2010 to 2012 had it not been for the shrinking antipoverty role of unemployment insurance,” he told me.

UI kept 1.7 million people above the official poverty line in 2012, down nearly half from the 3.2 million who were lifted above the poverty line in 2010. Sherman notes that UI benefits used to reach 67 workers for every 100 unemployed workers; now it’s just 48 for every 100.

“The poverty rate would have declined significantly, by about half a percentage point — and there would be a million fewer poor people today — if UI’s effect per unemployed person hadn’t weakened since 2010,” he said.

Greg Kaufmann is a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, the former poverty correspondent for The Nation and a former contributor to BillMoyers.com. The opinions expressed here are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @GregKaufmann.
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  • Anonymous

    I’ll do my best to share this information with as many people as I can reach. This is vital for community activists and progressives of all stripes. (Yes, I know right-wing moderates who are open to reason!)

  • Anonymous

    Everyone who espouses “family values” should be very distressed about the poverty level in this wealthy nation. Wages and purchasing power have declined during the recent couple of decades with the natural result of putting more people in a condition of poverty. Its disgraceful for this wealthy nation to do nothing about it!

  • PeregrinesBoat

    Most (but of course not all) of the poverty incidence cited is due to poor life choices in the adults. A grayer area is addiction, somewhere between disease and a character flaw. Again, in the adults, not the children

    The point about children in poverty taking $400 per month or whatever dollar value per month is inherently flawed in at least two ways.

    One is the premise that throwing money at an issue, in this case filling the economic void and with other people’s money, is simplistic. Sort of like saying the way to fill a depleted reservoir is by filling it with water. That water (or money) has to come from somewhere, but no mention is made of how the poverty (or reservoir water level) became depleted in the first place. Things specifically like a destruction of family structure, stifling of the economy by external forces, mostly governmental induced uncertainty, IMHO. Also the development of multi-generational dependency, with no one seriously saying, “why is this extending beyond one generation as a tradition?” So we get several generations knowing nothing about being self-sufficient, with newer parents in the mold of their own, raising children to continue the cycle. No amount of money will change this. Only will, can.

    The second, regarding child poverty, is delivery of the proposed money. Typically this is managed by and through… the parents who bear responsibility for the situation in the first place. Unless one is asking the children to be forcibly removed or micro-managed by government agencies (ugh), there is no point in increasing funding on a thin hope that this money will be structurally directed entirely to the needs of the children being targeted.

  • Julie

    The wealthy don’t have a clue what it means to budget for the basic essentials, and then be forced to do without when any unexpected emergency hits. It’s not about generations of training that keeps people in poverty, as one person suggested in these comments. It’s about wages that are insufficient to provide a decent life for a family. There is no addiction that sucks up the available money in most families, no bad behavior or mind-set that shrinks their income. That is a nasty stereotype. Wages are too low, the expense of education too high, the very cost of food and housing… combined are too much for a couple of parents who have no outside help. The pattern of the right to put the blame for poor living conditions on the shoulders of those who have been disenfranchised is shameful.

  • Brian Novotny

    Get that off the right wing Heritage Institute manual or Fox News or Rush Limbaugh? You conservatives never will have a clue.

  • Brian Cummings

    It’s so funny how easy it is to sound perfectly logical when you spout pretty words copied verbatim from pundits whose very existence it is to create compilations of pretty words that justify away your selfishness. Don’t belittle your opinion, it’s not humble – it’s the exact same as all of your right-wing (or libertarian, whatever) It’s a very common opinion. Not truly researched, or thought out. it’s just the one that most easily fits your paradigm of exclusive and egocentric “specialness”

  • Thought

    In this country the solution is sought after is always money. How about a cultural solution to poverty? How about a societal solution to poverty? What does that mean? The emphasis is not placed on money but on communities placing value on human beings: caring, nurturing, support, sharing, etc. Money only accomplishes one thing and still doesn’t solve the problem, because it is TOO MATERIALISTIC. Where are the parents, the village, the support network that helps raise the child? We’re social beings and it takes more than money, money doesn’t buy any of that. Academic education is one piece of the complexity a human being is. Here in US we think that by buying “fish’ to the needy solves the problem. How about if we take them fishing in good supporting company that will be there for the rest of the child’s life and teach the child how to fish in such company so s/he can become a wholesome human being.

  • Suzanne Miles

    The problem with “cultural solutions” v money solutions is that any solution ALWAYS involves some kind of financial expenditure. If it’s in providing shelter, a roof costs money, even if a community builds it. If it’s in “teaching children to fish,” it involves people who have boats, time, and money to provide surrounding supports. I am not objecting; I just want to make it clear that NOTHING is free except our good will. Racism, cultural snobbery, and institutionalized selfishness (in the form of corporate greed & tax breaks) are the sources of America’s problems. Rebuild America, beginning with our slums & their schools and ending with roads & bridges, and you will find hope once again lifting her lovely head.

  • Anonymous

    You missed the changes in welfare programs under Clinton – they max at five years total for a life time!!! Friedman promoted the concept of income subsidy for the very poor via an income credit – so people who work but make very little got rewarded and helped.

    There is no excuse for this level of ignorance except intellectual sloth and willfulness.

  • Kathy Collins Hurt

    How would we guarantee the Child receives the money,the food,the clothing? if its like now,the parent receives the food stamps,but sometimes the Child never sees the benefit.My daughter works in a very poor area,some of these children do not! eat from Friday till Mon at school again…..very disturbing.

  • itry2brational

    Here’s something you did miss in your article on poverty: homelessness. 3. discusses the “Gender Gap” with regard to poverty. What of the “Gender Gap” with regard to homelessness? 80% of the homeless are men.

    Tags: gender, women. Are women the only gender that matters? Are men invisible?

  • Dracul Jan Ivanescu

    This is not a rich country, People who live here are rich but the country isnt.

  • Fred Buster Tripp

    The need of the poor is not always just, but if we do not listen where is the justice? We are being treated as an outdated machine that has no use any more. What has our country become?

  • eglantier

    All of your points are covered in a new film called “Inequality For All” featuring Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, a VERY informative film (although you summarized it quite well).

  • Dracul Jan Ivanescu

    note I use the singular capital letter People to be general on a modern sense of the word like Mankind. Like a child who says that he is rich when in fact as a child hes not anything without his parents. People in the U.S. ARE Rich just not anyone we know….(maybe)