Child Poverty Rate Falls Slightly But Poverty Still Casts a Long Shadow

Earlier this week the Census released data for 2013 showing that child poverty fell to approximately 20 percent.  Despite the slight improvement, one in five American children still lives below the federal poverty line of $18,769 for a single-parent family of three.  According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), “Almost 9 percent of children—6.5 million—were in ‘deeply poor’ families with cash incomes under half of the poverty level (around $9,300 in 2013 for a family of three.)”  Children are far more likely than adults to be poor, and children of color are far more likely to be poor than white children. Last year 38.3 percent of black children were poor and 30.4 percent of Hispanic children were poor, while only 10.7 percent of white children were poor.  According to CLASP’s report, “Children under age three had the highest poverty rates, and the prevalence of poverty was highest during these earliest, most formative years of children’s lives—with potentially lasting consequences for education, health, and other key outcomes.”

Writing for the NY Times on Wednesday, Thomas Edsall examines the issue of how to intervene in the cycle of poverty to help children transcend their parents economic circumstances.  Exploring a well-known Moving to Opportunity study, which tracked whether academic achievement improved for children whose families were given housing vouchers to move to less poor neighborhoods, Edsall explains that moving did not seem to improve the children’s accomplishments at school.  He interviewed Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who points out that flaws in the study may have affected its results.  Wilson notes that while many of the families in the study left public housing, they “moved to segregated neighborhoods nonetheless, far from employment opportunities…. Social conditions were only marginally better than those they had left.”  Edsall also interviewed another Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson, who explains that “many of the adults in the program had lived in extreme poverty for decades and that the children, who were on average 11 years old when they entered the program, had spent their early years living in adversity.”

Edsall concludes, “Multigenerational poverty is self-evidently more than a question of housing.  It is unlikely to yield to even the best-intentioned one-dimensional approach… We have to figure out a better way to approach intervention, whether it’s education-based or neighborhood-based or both.”

For a deeper exploration of the issues facing children who grow up in poverty, one can turn to a recently published and unusual longitudinal study of the lives of a sizeable group of children in Baltimore.  The authors, sociologists from Johns Hopkins University—Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson—tracked 790 children from 1982 when they entered first grade in twenty elementary schools in Baltimore until they reached adulthood. The children who are the subject of the study in The Long Shadow reside in several poor and working class census tracts.  Year after year the researchers interviewed the children, their families, and their teachers:

“Members of the Youth Panel were six-year-old children when we first entered their lives in 1982 and young adults when we exited in 2006.  Their voices are heard throughout this volume by way of wide-ranging conversations with them during the summers of 1995 and 1996, and in 2000 throughout the year, all well after high school.  These sessions—162 in all—asked members of the sample to reflect on their years growing up and to look ahead to their anticipated futures… The Young Adult Survey (YAS ) commenced in 1998 with 82 percent of the interviews completed that year…. Parents and teachers of the children also are represented.  Parents were interviewed up to eleven times from first grade to eleventh grade and teachers interviewed up to nine times, the last in ninth grade.”  School records were also collected for the study. (The Long Shadow, pp. 15-16)

It is impossible in a short blog post to do justice to this complex and fascinating study.  I urge you to find a copy of The Long Shadow.  These words from the book’s conclusion, however, shed light on the reasons Edsall struggles to find a satisfying solution to the persistence of the shadow of poverty.  As the children in their study grow up, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson trace the many formative influences that make escaping poverty  so challenging:

“What ultimately determines well-being in adulthood is how young people negotiate the transition to adulthood, which is rooted in resources all the way back to first grade (and from other literatures, before first grade.)  We see that children are launched onto stable trajectories very early in life….  First, the SES of their schools aligns with that of their neighborhoods, and both trace back to the SES of their parents.  This configuration has the children of the urban advantaged trebly advantaged and their lower SES counterparts trebly disadvantaged across the social contexts that bear on their development, and this before they even make it to school.  Second, parents’ plans for their children are in place long before high school, and these plans are strong determinants of their children’s school performance and goals in life….  Parents’ ideas about their children’s future reflect their own social structural locations.  In addition, the foundational school curriculum in the early years is cumulative.  Not surprisingly then, when children of the Baltimore Youth Panel grow up with parents who have less than a high school education, their school careers tend to be foreshortened.  A few do move up by way of college, but just a few.  For the rest, their SES as adults reflects theirs as children” (The Long Shadow, pp. 187-188)


One thought on “Child Poverty Rate Falls Slightly But Poverty Still Casts a Long Shadow

  1. when looking at averages it blurs our view; in some areas poverty is 25% and unemployment near 50%…. That is like in my town we have to look at the median test scores because we have such variety in our student population mean/average tells almost nothing related to usefulness in program development or student support services. Thanks, Jan for all you do to get this information into the places where we can dissect the issues.

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