Child Poverty: The Questions We Should Ask

Feb 24, 2012

By Hannah Matthews and Jenice R. Robinson

Every time a major study is released that reveals the increasingly difficult time that ordinary Americans are having, the automatic next questions for policymakers should be, "What are we going to do about it?" and, "How fast can we get it done?"

Such should have been the case on Thursday when the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count project released a report on children living in high poverty communities. The news is not good. Nearly 8 million children live in neighborhoods with high poverty concentration, a 25 percent increase since 2000. Given the state of the economy, the rise is sobering but not startling.

Reducing the number of children living in distressed communities is an important policy question. Poor children already begin life with significant social and economic disadvantage. They have worse outcomes on every measure, from educational attainment to economic success. The persistence of poverty matters, too, with adult outcomes worse for those who spend a longer period of their childhood in poverty than others.   

Children in high poverty communities face a double whammy of sorts. Concentrated poverty exacerbates disadvantage. Parents in distressed communities are more likely to struggle to meet basic needs than families with similar incomes living in more economically advantaged areas. Parental stress can foster unhealthy development for children, and the adverse effect of living high poverty communities is evident in educational outcomes. According to the report, children in low-income schools "have lower test scores than those who attend predominantly higher-income schools, regardless of their family's income."

So, what are we going to do about it? We don't have to resign ourselves to the status quo. When the federal government and states invest in child care and early education, it makes a difference. A recent Foundation for Child Development report on child and youth well-being backs this up. Critical supports, including tax credits for working families, nutrition assistance, and health insurance, bolster families' income while ensuring that children have all that they need to thrive. But far too few families eligible for supports receive them due to insufficient funding, onerous program requirements, and other challenges. We can put policies in place that make it easier for families to get the help they need, rather than more difficult. 

The policy solutions are clear. What we need to do is evident. And the research on the long-term effects of child poverty tells us that in fact it matters that we get this done fast. Policymakers need the will to support our most vulnerable children. What are we going to do about that? 

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