Crossroads: Will We Let a Generation Grow Up Poor?

Sep 16, 2010

By Hannah Matthews and Danielle Ewen

Every seven seconds, a baby is born in the United States. Census data released today suggest that more of these babies than ever before are born into poor families.

For every five newborns, three babies will leave the hospital and go home to middle-and upper-class households where they will likely receive regular visits to a doctor. They will likely receive their recommended immunizations. They will likely have a home to sleep in where they will have clean diapers and clothing. Some of these three babies may even have a parent who has access to paid leave, allowing the parent to spend more time nurturing their child during the first critical weeks and months of life. When the babies' parents return to the workforce, they may be more likely to secure quality child care for their baby that will support healthy growth and development.

But for two babies, life will look much different. Two out of five babies will go home to families whose incomes are less than twice the federal poverty level, limiting their ability to afford sufficient food, health care, child care and other basic expenses. These children may not have access to a doctor, for sick visits or regular check-ups. If these babies have a regular home to sleep in, their parents may struggle to meet all of their household expenses, at times needing to forgo paying the electricity or delay purchasing food until they receive their monthly SNAP or food stamp allowance. Without access to paid leave, and without sufficient income to meet the high costs of child care, their parents may be forced to leave them in child care settings that at best do not have the resources to provide adequate stimulation and foster healthy development and at worst are not even safe environments for young children.

Today, the U.S. Census data reveal more people living in poverty today than at any time since the Census began tracking it in 1959. In 2009, 24.5 percent of children under age 5 were living in poor families and 46.4 percent were living in families considered low-income (200 percent of the federal poverty level). Young children have the highest poverty rates of any age group in the country and poverty is a strong predictor of negative child outcomes. Children who are born into poverty are significantly more likely to live in persistent poverty throughout their childhoods. Factors associated with poverty are especially detrimental for infants and toddlers as their brains are developing rapidly during this phase of life and laying the foundation for future growth and development. Children living in poverty are less likely to be successful in school and less likely to be gainfully employed over their lifetimes. And the longer a child lives in poverty, the worse their adult outcomes, including employment and earnings.

We know from research that interventions for vulnerable children should begin prenatally or at least at birth, since significant brain development occurs during the earliest years of life. And we know that interventions that provide comprehensive supports to vulnerable children and their parents-including health and mental health services, nutritious food, quality early learning, parenting supports and economic supports-can help ameliorate the consequences of growing up poor and shift the life course for these babies.

Poverty is going to continue to grow unless we make a decision to address it-a decision that will take significant investments.  In this difficult budget time, these investments must be cost-effective and based in the best knowledge we have.  We need to decide what is best for the country: billions of dollars in tax cuts or funding for services that buy food, housing and education for our children and their families.

Today's Census figures reveal that America has a critical decision to make. Do we decide to invest in our future or do we let the future lag by ignoring the needs of our most vulnerable children?  Every hour that we delay, 100 more children are born into poverty.

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