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Poverty and Inequality Among Children
Studies show that child poverty has been increasing at an alarming rate in the last decade. In 1994, 15.3 million children, or 21.8% of all Americans, were poor (Lichter 1997) and that, although children constituted only 26.7% of the population, 40.1% of all poor persons in the U.S. were children (U.S. Bureau of Census 1996 as qtd in Lichter). These rising poverty rates are used by government agencies in determining the criteria for eligibility in social insurance programs and public assistance interventions developed by these government agencies. And, according to these criteria, the economic well-being of American children is on a downtrend, which indicates that tomorrow's adults will be less economically adjusted than adults today and that the future of today's children is materially and psycho-emotionally less promising (Lichter).
In his study, Lichter (1997) pointed to the rapid changes in the most fundamental institutions -- family, school and government -- as the causes for the high rates of poverty among children. They either end up in a single-parent setup, or if with both parents, these parents have to work and turn their care over to non-family members, such as babysitters. In the meantime, the school is unable to make up for the social and economic gaps at home (Booth & Dunn 1995 as qtd in Lichter) and also made the problem worse. And, for its part, the government was unresponsive to the issues at hand concerning welfare reform that must address children's needs (Lichter).
Child poverty today is not comparable to child poverty in the past. Child poverty today, according to Lichter (1997), rose along with age inequality, real decline in income, a changing family structure, spatial ecology of poverty and the increase in the incidence of chronic or persistent poverty (Lichter). Today's poor children are twice as much as the elderly population, making poor children the poorest age segment in American society and, at the same time, "the most vulnerable and innocent (Lichter)." This sharp trend has no precedence: child poverty has increased steeply since 1980 as the poverty of the elderly decreased substantially as a result of government social insurance, such as social security and Medicare (Preston 1984 as qtd in Lichter). In comparison, therefore, today's poor children are poorer than the poor children of the past, evidenced by the 12% decline in median real income between 1970 and 1986, during which those below the 50% poverty threshold grew in number by a third (Lichter). Furthermore, the poverty ratio among these poor children in the bottom 20% went down from .85 in 1969 to .68 in 1989. Collective data show that the poverty gap, which was the income required to pull poor children out of poverty, stretched wider in the last decade (Lichter). These children thrived on welfare income and other in-kind public assistance programs and lived in welfare-dependent households that likewise increased from 18.2% to 35.5% between 1969 and 1989.
Surprisingly, the study revealed that child poverty rates rose dramatically among working parents, rather than single parents, and this was so because of the substantial decrease in earnings among poor working parents. Single parents worked more and earned better (Lichter). Today's poor children, in comparison with those of the past, are more separated socially and spatially from the non-poor in schools and communities (Massey and Denton 1993 as qtd in Lichter) and lived in neighborhoods where poverty rates were 20% or more.
Poor children today are comparatively likelier to remain poor than the poor children of the past: the former tended to be chronically poor or experience recurring poverty, as figures showed (Lichter). Long-term poverty stares everyone on the face, and long-term poverty demands policy solutions, training, remedial education and job growth, rather or not only short-term interventions, such as food stamps, during emergency.
The same study pointed to the growing economic inequality within and between rich and poor, more educated and less educated, blacks and white, married couples and single parent families, American natives and immigrants, those living in the cities or in sub-urban areas (Lichter 1997). The main reasons have been traced to modifications in family structure, altering employment patterns and incomes, and changes in public assistance. The increase in child poverty between 1970 and 1986 was attributed to the growth of single-parent families (Duncan 1992 as qtd by Lichter). If this trend would continue, experts projected, child poverty would rise in the absence of significant change in single women's or mothers' economic position (Lichter). One analysis confirmed (Rodgers 1996 as qtd by Lichter) that 70% of studied poor children between 1966 and 1993 belonged to households headed by unmarried mothers. Critics, however, explained that this trend was due to increasing economic difficulties due to the breakdown of the family, rather than from rising female headship (Lichter). Other studies agreed that marital breakdown and low family income were mutually reinforcing.
Child poverty is virtually non-existent in families where both parents worked, but this was due to more mothers working and, therefore, two parents contributing to family income (Lichter). In the employment arena, on the other hand, are restless occurrences or macroeconomic shifts, such as the change from high-wage manufacturing to low-wage service jobs, decreasing unionization and global competition for cheap source of labor from abroad (Lichter). Improved education would immediately appear to be the solution to the problem, but it was not. Studies on the growth of child poverty from 1980 showed that it did not derive from significant declines in human capital, work skills or efforts of these poor children's parents (Lichter).
Government policies were also identified as a factor in the huge surge of child poverty in recent times. The emphasis on behavioral poverty -outcome of bad decisions and bad parental values -- such as the AFDC cash assistance program, in the past decade appeared to have undermined rather than strengthened the traditional family (Lichter). On the other hand, others believed that the government was, in fact, not doing enough despite the welfare bill, which placed the responsibility for children's well-being more into the state. But most evidence indicated that the decline in family values evolved from generous welfare programs, which encouraged non-marital reproduction and divorce. It was also blamed for the 15% increase in female-headed families. In undermining the traditional family, government policies meant to help ironically, directly or indirectly produced negative effects on children's well-being (Lichter).
In the meantime, the government can help parents and their children who are as yet not dependent on welfare by helping parents earn more by raising the minimum wage and by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for families. These options were believed to be of value to those children in the lowest income levels if work is available for their parents (Lichter). But these measures require that legislators appreciate the value of children as a public good and as fundamental investments for tomorrow's future, and it is concrete reality that there exist different political motivations in government policy-making and, therefore, different policy solutions. Likewise, the "causes" of poverty (Lichter) for different groups of children are not alike. Children of poor whites, poor blacks, of single-parent families, of both parents together and children of working and non-working parents have their own causes. Child poverty rates could not be reduced without first building strong families, promoting work and better wages, and introducing truly supportive family and pro-work public policies (Lichter).
It is emphasized that the rate of child poverty in the last decade was at its highest on record. This poor showing could be the outcome of inadequate research, less efficient social policy or an inaccurate knowledge and/or understanding of the true nature and causes of poverty. Whichever, the situation showed that policies have not benefited poor children, per recent indicators in poverty and inequality (Lichter).
The very deep roots of theoretical and empirical controversies and ideological differences surrounding the rise and extent of child poverty in America are difficult to trace and unravel. Just as difficult is the task of confronting and handling the gap between dispassionate policy analysis and the passionate rhetoric (Lichter) necessary in initiating legislative action. On the whole, there is perceived need for more sensitive standards of well being and the economic want in childhood, Lichter wrote. He also identified the need to identify the families strategies in adapting to poverty, the seeming reciprocation between poverty and biology, to better understand inter-group conflicts and antagonisms. On the whole, there is need to do more than just confine views and efforts to conventional measures, traditional sociological and economic poverty theories and conservative or liberal thinking in addressing this new social monstrosity and providing any hope and promise to America's poor children today about their future (Lichter).
Other studies released similar findings. One reported that approximately one in five American children today is poor (Achs and Gallagher 1999) and will tend to turn them into poor adults in the future. It also established that economic well-being varied substantially according to type of family and state. Children with both…[continue]
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