The biggest barrier to educational achievement today is not any of the things the media talk endlessly about: poorly prepared teachers, badly run schools, too many tests, low standards. It’s child poverty—which, like poverty in general, has just dropped out of the discourse. The Democrats don’t talk about it, except to wag the finger at deadbeat dads and teen moms, and the media don’t talk about it except in the context of crime or individual triumph. In fact, from the coverage you’d think our current crisis chiefly affected the middle classes—office managers, newly minted lawyers, college grads who have to move back in with their parents—when actually the unemployment rate for people with college degrees is 4.2 percent, which is where it was for all Americans before the recession. By contrast, for those with only a high school diploma unemployment is 9.4 percent; for high school dropouts it’s 14.2 percent. And those figures measure only those actively looking for work, not the millions who’ve given up or have never held a job (some 16.5 percent of black men over 20). All those women pushed off welfare, called success stories because they got a job as a receptionist or a security guard or a clerk, with supposedly the hope of something better to come? Forget them.Katha Pollitt
Inconveniently, though, the poor and near poor, whom we don’t care about, come attached to children, for whom we supposedly have some concern. So how are the kids doing?
Some facts from the National Center for Children in Poverty: one in five families is food-insecure, i.e., they don’t have enough food for everyone in the family at least some of the time. Health? Poor children are far more at risk than better-off kids: from secondhand smoke (32 percent vs. 12 percent of nonpoor children), low or moderate levels of lead in their blood (30 percent vs. 15 percent), lack of health insurance (16 percent vs. 8 percent) and lack of dental care (18 percent of poor kids hadn’t seen a dentist in the past year vs. 11 percent of nonpoor children, which is bad enough). Poor children are more likely to have asthma (18 percent vs. 13 percent). They are more likely to have missed five or more days of school for health-related reasons (20 percent vs. 15 percent). Twice as many poor parents report that their child has “definite or severe” emotional, behavioral or social problems (10 percent vs. 5 percent). Poor kids are also more likely to be obese, to get insufficient exercise, to be diagnosed with ADHD or other learning disabilities and to have mothers who are in poor health themselves. No wonder they are less likely to be described by their parents as being in very good or excellent health (71 percent vs. 87 percent).
Poor children’s home lives are more precarious. Almost one in five children in poor or low-income families had moved in the last year, which means disrupted schooling and stress. In 2007, 1.7 million kids had a parent in prison, including one in fifteen black children. In 2008, around 460,000 children spent time in foster care. In 2009, 2.2 million were being raised by grandparents or other relatives.
Poor kids are more likely to be raised by single mothers and to have parents who didn’t finish high school or go to college. Even just living with other poor people seems to harm kids. Those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods have lower reading scores; so do low-income kids who go to schools where the student body is 75 percent or more minority. Most black and Latino kids attend such schools. By the age of 2, poorer children have fallen cognitively behind those from wealthier families.