A Future Imperiled by Poverty
By Michal Smith-Mello and Peter Schirmer
From The Context of Change pp. 117-125, published 1994
From one fourth to nearly one half of Kentucky's children live in poverty, which, research consistently shows, can and does ruin lives.
As suggested by Professor Stephan M. Wilson, Director of the University
of Kentucky's Research Center for Families and Children, children are the
"common wealth" of our state and our nation, the irreplaceable resource on which
the future depends.
Today, families are under extraordinary stress that is being felt in
the everyday lives of children from every economic strata, but far more acutely in the
lives of those who are poor.
Structural economic and family changes have combined to push one in
five U.S. children into what the U.S. Bureau of Census defines as poverty. Some social
science researchers believe it is outdated and inaccurate, and grossly underestimates the
real scope of the problem. By current federal estimates, the line of poverty is presently
drawn at a monthly income of $932 for a single mother with two children and at $1,195 for
a family of four.
Even by official definitions, one in four Kentucky children is poor. In 22 rural Kentucky counties, 40 percent or more of children live in official poverty. The Kentucky Kids Count Consortium, which includes state university researchers and child advocates, estimates that nearly one-half (48 percent) of children in the state are members of families who are unable to provide a minimal standard of living.
The alarm poverty raises is not new to the public policy dialogue in Kentucky. In the mid-1940s the Committee for Kentucky expressed concern about poverty's implications for the state's future. Forty years later in 1986, the Kentucky Tomorrow Commission echoed those same concerns, urging investment in programs to alleviate the causes and consequences of poverty.
As we near the end of this century, poverty has not been defeated or
diminished. Instead, it has tightened its stranglehold on Kentucky families and expanded
its geographic reach. Once regarded as largely an Appalachian problem, poverty became a
way of life for more and more western Kentucky families during the 1980s.
Today, the body of research into poverty has begun to expand in
proportion to the magnitude of the problem and complement long-established documentation
of the relationship between childhood poverty and a range of potentially devastating adult
outcomes. The circumstances of life in poverty, researchers consistently conclude,
adversely affect the health and the educational attainment of children reared under its
mantle and, in turn, the productivity and independence of their adult lives.
The long-range public interest, more and more researchers assert, will
be served by policies and programs that alleviate the effects of poverty and prevent its
root causes. Broad-based investment in comprehensive initiatives that have yielded proven
results is being urged from a number of fronts.
The singular advantage policymakers enjoy today, 30 years after President Lyndon Johnson's symbolic launching of the War on Poverty in Inez, Kentucky, is knowledge. While it may seem now that the war is lost, as more and more human territory has been ceded, many strategies for mediating the damaging consequences of poverty have proven and will continue to prove their worth to public investors. They offer a path to policymakers who are confronted with the need to invest in prevention at a time when the cost of failure is consuming bigger pieces of state budget pies.
Stagnant wages and a rising number of single-parent households, usually headed by women, have extended poverty's reach.
The underlying causes of poverty among families with children are both economic and structural. As family households have divided, so too have resources. Too often, children are the economic losers, but even two-parent families have suffered economic setbacks in recent years. The average family's take-home pay (inflation-adjusted wages) has not kept pace with inflation since 1974, and an estimated 6.6 million U.S. workers live in families who are poor.
The plight of young U.S. families with children, those headed by persons younger than 30, has worsened dramatically, according to a 1992 report by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). Between 1943 and 1990, CDF found the median income (adjusted for inflation) of young families was reduced by nearly one-third -- 32 percent -- while it rose 11 percent among families without children. At the same time, the poverty rate for children in young families doubled, from 20 percent in 1943 to 40 percent in 1990.
In Kentucky, the overall picture is made worse by a median family
income that lags far behind that for the nation as a whole. As illustrated, while the
median family income in the United States is now $35,225 a year, it is more than $8,000
a year lower for Kentucky families ($27,028), a gap that widened from 83 percent of
the national median income in 1980 to 77 percent in 1990.
While two-parent families struggle to make it on declining wages,
children who live in single-parent households are six times as likely to be poor, largely
because most live in households headed by women who earn less, receive little or no
support from the absent parent, or receive too little public assistance to escape poverty.
In Kentucky, public assistance clearly does not permit recipients to escape poverty. In
1990, the maximum AFDC monthly payment to a family of four was 34 percent lower than the
national average, $285 in contrast to $432.
Underlying the changing economic circumstances of families with children are persistent racial and gender inequities in pay and employment opportunities that are sharply felt by single women, as well as by two-parent families. In its annual report on poverty, the Census Bureau reported in 1991 that, regardless of educational achievement, more women lived in poverty. Among those women without a high school diploma, for example, 30.7 percent were poor as compared to 19 percent of men with the same educational background.
A 1991 report for the Workforce Development Cabinet found that,
regardless of age or years of education, women in Kentucky continue to earn substantially
less than men, 62.7 cents on average for each dollar earned by men. Census data, however,
suggest that this figure may actually underestimate the disparity.
Among black families, the rising number of single-parent households has exaggerated long-standing inequities. More than half of black families with children (53 percent) in Kentucky are now headed by single women in comparison to 16.6 percent of white families. In turn, nearly half of all black children in the state (47 percent) live in households that fall below the federal poverty threshold. In the state's most populous counties, Jefferson and Fayette, the percentage of black children who live in poverty is four times greater than that among white children.
Compounding the economic woes of families headed by women of all colors
is a significant national deficit in child support from absent fathers -- approximately $5
billion in 1989, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services estimates that more than half of women in the United States who have
children by fathers no longer in the home do not receive child support, either because
there is no support award in place or the support awarded is not being paid.
Teenage childbearing also continues to play a well-documented role in the perpetuation of poverty. Unmarried, teenage mothers are at the highest risk of remaining impoverished and dependent upon welfare. As Schorr notes, more than half of total AFDC budgets go to families headed by women who were teenagers when they had their first child, and 71 percent of all AFDC mothers under the age of 30 began childbearing as teenagers. A 1989 study of the characteristics of AFDC recipients in Kentucky found that while only 5 percent of those surveyed had received welfare as a child, 50 percent had given birth to their first child before reaching the age of 19.
As illustrated, births to women under the age of 20 in Kentucky have declined steadily in recent years, according to the Children's Defense Fund, from 18.3 percent of all births in 1984 to 17.5 percent in 1989. They nevertheless represent a significant problem, particularly in light of the documented consequences of teenage childbearing and the significant portion of out-of-wedlock births to teen mothers (36.5 percent in 1991). Additionally, Professor Gary Hansen has found that Kentucky counties with high child poverty rates have 33 percent higher rates of births to teens, ages 12 to 17.
Poverty's Enduring Legacy
Research suggests the persistence of poverty in Kentucky is the product of mean cycles that trap children in the same limiting and debilitating circumstances their parents experienced.
Beyond the immediate humanitarian alarms sounded by deepening poverty in Kentucky are a significant number of long-term outcomes that could influence our social and economic future for decades to come. The long-term implications are disturbing enough to render the contentious debate surrounding family values insignificant. What is almost certain to be significant, however, are the costly consequences of rearing more and more children in poverty. Researchers have empirically demonstrated what common sense would lead most to conclude about poverty: It often ruins lives.
Researchers have consistently tied impoverished environments and their consequences for physical and emotional health to low educational achievement and subsequent patterns of unemployment and underemployment. Often, they have found, the costly consequences of poverty cross generations, as children become entrapped by the same debilitating social and physical circumstances their parents experienced. The enduring cycles of poverty in Kentucky are testament to these findings.
The web of entrapment poverty weaves begins with the absence of proper
pre-natal and peri-natal care, which increases the risk of disability and death. As
illustrated, both Kentucky and the nation have experienced a gradual decline in infant
mortality rates that have been in relatively close alignment.
Health and well-being are also more elusive in the lives of poor
children. Nationally, public health researchers find that accidental and disease related
deaths are three to four times greater among children who live in circumstances of
poverty, which often include substandard housing, inadequate clothing, poor nutrition and
the absence of preventive health care (Baumeister et al.).
When poor children enter Kentucky schools, research suggests they are
less likely to be ready to learn than their more affluent peers and more likely to be
adversely affected by negative attitudes and practices that constrain their achievement.
The Children's Defense Fund reported in a 1986 study that poor children tend to lack the
basic skills more affluent children possess and to score lower on achievement tests. The
expanding number of children in poverty also may contribute to a dramatic rise in learning
If acute disadvantage persists in the lives of so many Kentucky
children, the promise of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) may be muted. Research,
however, has clearly established the predictors of failure and, hence, points of
intervention. "School failure and poor reading performance as early as third grade,
truancy, poor achievement.
For some children, there may be no escape from the sting of poverty.
Through the ubiquitous presence of television, poor children are made acutely aware of the
poverty in which they live. That knowledge alone compounds the sense of alienation and
isolation that some researchers believe presents the most formidable obstacle to escape
from poverty. Beyond the stigma of impoverishment in a culture that defines achievement
largely in terms of acquisitions, research suggests that emotional scars are also more
likely to mar the lives of poor children.
Because poverty weakens parenting skills, which are already under significant stress in households headed by single parents, the psychological well-being of poor children may be jeopardized. Among its most appalling effects, observe Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker in Thinking for a Living, is the way in which it deprives many of its youthful victims "of a belief in themselves, in the capacity to succeed, no matter what they do." Marshall and Tucker argue that the absence of this belief in an upward link to a better life isolates many American children and their families from hope that must be provided through comprehensive investment in education and training.
We know where poor families with children are most in need of our help, how to help them, and what it will cost us if we do nothing.
In Kentucky, our prospects for the future may rest on how quickly and how successfully we adapt to the change that is certain to be a constant in the lives of families. One of the changes that portends future problems is deepening poverty among families with children. In spite of the constraints of limited federal and state resources, social policy researchers suggest that programs aimed at families, particularly families in poverty, should be broadly expanded in the long-term interest of society.
Part of adapting, suggests Professor Wilson, is elevating the public
dialogue from sensationalistic and inaccurate media accounts of family failure that
further undermine an already strained family and community fabric. Wilson recommends a
more factual assessment of family life in America and a renewed, creative focus on what
works rather than what fails. He believes failure-oriented research and media doomsaying
belie the resiliency and strength of families.
Successful models have demonstrated that providing more for families in need during a time of declining resources, requires a radical philosophical shift to a more flexible, less bureaucratic, preventive mode of service. Outcomes, suggests Mark Friedman, a senior associate with the Washington, D.C.-based research group, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, are emerging as a driving force behind budget strategies and priorities. States and state agencies are identifying programmatic and larger societal goals to meet through public investment and measuring their progress toward those goals.
To help achieve outcomes such as reducing welfare dependency and lifting more children out of poverty, Friedman suggests state policymakers can find dollars to finance proven family programs from untapped federal sources and by carving pieces out of "failure-oriented" budgets and dedicating them to prevention. As need escalates, talk of using human service bonds to finance critical investments in the future is also emerging.
An example of an alternative approach to family services is seen in
Michigan's Families First Program, which spends up to $500 per family to provide help when
it is needed and relieve stress caused by inadequate resources. Front-line social workers
are given the flexibility and the authority to spend whatever necessary to empower
families, to help them regain equilibrium and move out of crisis.
The recommended long-term strategy which has emerged from a number of
fronts is that of identifying high risk groups and investing in intensive help. Those at
highest risk, according to Professor Schorr, are children growing up in persistent
poverty, in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, in homeless families, with a mentally
ill, alcoholic, drug-addicted or isolated parent. Professor Hansen has identified those
Kentucky counties where concentrated services are most needed.
Schorr argues convincingly that we know where poor families with children are most in need of our help, how to help them and what it will cost if we do nothing. In Kentucky, it will cost our "common wealth" a future of promise, prosperity and progress. If we remain indifferent to the growing needs of Kentucky's poor families with children, we will help ensure the perpetuation of poverty of unacceptable breadth, as well as the deprivation, the mediocrity, the pain and the costly consequences that attend it.
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