1.17 Million Children in U.S. Survive on $2 per Day or Less

We know how poverty among children constrains opportunity and affects school achievement, but it is difficult to consider what can be done. Yesterday’s NY Times published a short, comprehensive and extraordinarily moving column by Thomas Edsall, professor of journalism at Columbia University, about how our nation’s welfare policies have shaped poverty in the United States today: Cutting the Poor Out of Welfare.  I urge you to read it.

Edsall reports that even when the value of food stamps and the earned income and child care tax credits are calculated, there has been dramatic growth in the number of households in the United States in which each member of the family survives on $2 a day or less, “from 409,000 households in 1996, before passage of welfare reform, to 613,000 households in 2011, including 1.17 million children.”

It is difficult for most of us to sort out and remember how welfare policy has been shaped—the end of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996 and its supposed replacement with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—the impact of the earned income tax credit since its enactment in 1975—the passage of the child and dependent care tax credit in 1997 to provide childcare assistance for low-income and middle-income families—the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.  Haven’t we helped our poorest citizens with these programs?  According to Edsall, our federal policies have reduced poverty overall, but they have not helped our most desperate families including over a million children.

Edsall concludes: when added together, these programs clearly benefit parents who are married and those who have been able to secure jobs, even low-income jobs.  “For the poorest of the poor, the results have been devastating:  in 1983,  56 percent of total government transfers going to the poor and near-poor went to those on the bottom, those making 50 percent or less of the federal poverty level income.  By 2004, that number had fallen to 32 percent.”  Overall, inflation-adjusted federal spending on the poor grew by 74 percent between 1975 and 2007, “But those on the lowest rungs of the ladder have seen their government benefits decline….”

Federal policy has been designed to require work, encourage marriage, and penalize those who, we imagine, lack initiative. Edsall reports, however, that the problem is neither primarily cultural or psychological.  He quotes a range of experts who assign blame to structural factors that diminish employment among those most desperate: “falling labor demand, falling job opportunities and falling real wages….”  “The use of disincentives in the form of reduced or abolished benefits to encourage work has inflicted hardship on some populations.”

“Women and children in these circumstances are the casualties of the rightward shift in the war on poverty,” writes Edsall. “They have no political clout to speak of….  Anti-poverty policy like all public policy set in the political arena, is determined more by the balance of power than by evidence-based analysis or by humanitarian concerns.  There is no other way to explain how one of the most advanced countries in the world sits passively by as legions of men without high school degrees disappear from the workforce, or to explain how our country permits 1.17 million children to survive on $2 or less a day.”


2 thoughts on “1.17 Million Children in U.S. Survive on $2 per Day or Less

  1. Pingback: 1.17 Million Children in U.S. Survive on $2 per Day or Less | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

  2. Thank you, Thomas Edsall, and thank you, Jan Resseger, for getting these wise words out. “Falling labor demand, falling job opportunities, and falling real wages…” is the reason Ralph Nader accurately described America as the richest third world nation on the planet. The Democrats used to be the gatekeepers in Washington as the last, best hope of the poor in our country. When I was in one of the D.C. office buildings talking to a congressional staffer, he said, “No one uses the word poor around here anymore, not even Democrats.” And that is a shameful comment about our elected leaders who ought to be representing all the people, but we have lost that in our government.

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