Consistently ignored in reporting on the economic crisis is the dramatic toll it’s taking on America’s children. The prevalence of poverty has expanded dramatically in light of growing unemployment, accompanied by state attacks on social welfare spending that benefits the disadvantaged. Child poverty grew nationally to a total of 22 percent of all children in 2010, an all time high for the last two decades, and an increase in five percent over the last four years. Half of the poor are now classified as in “extreme poverty” – described as living in families earning below 50 percent of the poverty line. The percent of children who are food insecure also increased to 18 percent in 2010. This growth translates into an additional 750,000 children nationwide who are malnourished.
Reliance on food stamps increased by 24 percent between August 2008 and August 2009, with the number of children benefitting them growing from nearly 30 million to 37 million. Some localities are suffering under even higher levels of poverty. Throughout Illinois, up to 1.5 million people were reliant upon food stamps as of June 2009 – an increase of 22 percent from 2007. From 2000 to 2008, child poverty increased by 72 percent in Colorado. Overall, more than 30 states saw their reliance on food stamps increase between 2008 and 2009.
Sadly, attention to child poverty isn’t considered “sexy” enough to make the headlines or features in the “paper of record” (New York Times) or other agenda setting media. A review of stories featuring child poverty from August 2008 (at the time of the economic meltdown) through June 2010 finds that the issue was only featured in a single New York Times story and just three stories in the Washington Post.
Recently released data from a 2010 panel study by the Urban Institute (covering the period from 1968 through 2005) finds that childhood poverty is likely to be perpetuated into adulthood among the disadvantaged. The nuances of child poverty and its perpetuation over time, however, are lost in a media culture that favors the instant gratification of daily updates on Lindsay Lohan’s drug abuse over detailed coverage of national poverty. The media blackout on child poverty means that the causes of, and solutions to this phenomenon remain obscure to much of the public. The racial dimension of child poverty, for one, is left unaddressed. The Urban Institute reports that black children “are roughly 2.5 times more likely than white children to ever experience poverty and seven times more likely to be persistently poor…31 percent of white children and 69 percent of black children who are poor at birth go on to spend at least half their childhoods living in poverty.”
Conservative perspectives framing poverty as the result on personal laziness and due to the welfare state enabling dependency are also left unchallenged when the racial aspects of child poverty (and child poverty itself) are ignored in media. The Urban Institute reports that “those poor at birth are more likely to be poor between ages 25 and 30, drop out of high school, have a teen nonmarital birth, and have patchy employment records than those not poor at birth.” Conservatives (and increasingly a fair amount of center-left liberals) will no doubt blame these problems on the “bad habits” developed by the poor throughout their lives and to personal laziness, but these positions ignore structural barriers in society that ensure the continuation of poverty.
Structural racism – characterized by widespread residential and education segregation in the U.S. – is ignored in conservative and neoliberal propaganda against the poor. That poor school districts have been shown to systematically perform worse in academics than wealthier districts is ignored in conservative rhetoric, which claims that “throwing money at the problem” of underperforming schools “solves nothing.” Historically racist practices such as redlining, which targets poor and minority residents of the inner city, have succeeded in keeping most of disadvantaged African Americans and Hispanics from moving into more prosperous urban and suburban communities, and from accessing school districts that benefit from greater resources, but are located in more affluent school districts.
Empirical studies from as recently as the 1990s onward also demonstrate that black applicants are systematically more likely to be discriminated against by being denied bank loans, even after taking into account the fact that blacks as a demographic group are more likely to be poor and have weaker credit records. In other words, racist institutions that discriminate in their determination of “creditworthiness” based on an applicant’s skin color help to ensure the perpetuation of U.S. structural segregation and racism.
The lack of jobs in urban slums (which are disproportionately occupied by poor blacks and Hispanics) is a result of the movement of manufacturing jobs from cities to the suburbs, and then abroad. This loss of jobs is another major source of sustained racial inequality. Sadly, this reality is ignored in the obsession with personality-based explanations of poverty. The steady decline of the purchasing power of the minimum wage (since its height in the late 1960s) also ensures that the poor will continue to be poor, even when they find jobs and seek to “get off welfare.” Attempts to address the problem of low paying jobs are held with contempt by Republicans, conservatives, and neoliberal Democrats who believe that corporations shouldn’t be the subject of regulations that limit their profitability or raise the living standards of the masses.
Those responsible for studying poverty at the Urban Institute appear to understand these basic biases of American society – long ignored by those who hold the poor in contempt. The institute supports government intervention as a means of fighting poverty, including initiatives such as increased access to education, job training, and work support (such as child care payments to working parents). Support for such policies is driven by the understanding among public policy scholars that social welfare programs actually help to reduce poverty, rather than to perpetuate it. The Urban Institute’s analysis is a breath of fresh air at a time when the social welfare state is in decline and corporate America and government officials have declared war on the working class and poor.
ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), a daily online magazine devoted to the study of media, public opinion, and current events. He is the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org