I am a fan of wraparound Community Schools. Having pediatric services at a school-based health clinic would be a lifeline for a single mom and hotel maid without any paid sick days—a mother whose child needed immunizations or antibiotics for an earache. For this mother, having Head Start right in the same building where her older child attends second grade would make everything simpler. Parents, especially single parents, desperately need services packaged together to make them accessible.
But sociologists have recently published, in the popular press where we can all read it, a body of evidence that child poverty is so much deeper and more prevalent than most of us have understood. We need the services of Community Schools, but we also need to shatter widespread denial of a child poverty crisis in an economy that has added primarily low-paid, hourly jobs with uncertain hours and no paid time off, even sick days. A half century of evidence demonstrates that children’s school achievement correlates with their families’ economic circumstances. If we are serious about closing the gaps in school achievement, we will have to be far more realistic about the way we define the problems that deny opportunity for our society’s poorest children.
The introduction to $2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, describes Johns Hopkins sociologist, Kathryn Edin’s shock as, in the summer of 2010, she returned to update field work conducted years earlier. “She was struck by how markedly different things appeared from just fifteen years before… (S)he began to encounter many families… with no visible means of cash income from any source. These families weren’t just poor by American standards… Some claimed food stamps…. A few had a housing subsidy. Most had at least one household member covered by some form of government-funded health insurance… But what was so strikingly different from a decade and a half earlier was that there was virtually no cash coming into these homes.” (p. xv)
Edin paired up with a data expert, Luke Shaefer, who “borrowed inspiration from one of the World Bank’s metrics of global poverty in the developing world—$2 per person, per day. At the time, the official poverty line for a family of three in the United states worked out to about $16.50 per person, per day over the course of a year. The government’s designation of ‘deep poverty’—set at half the poverty line—equated to about $8.30 per person, per day… The results of Shaefer’s analysis were staggering. In early 2011, 1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month. That’s about one out of every twenty-five families with children in America… What’s more… the phenomenon of $2-a-day poverty among households with children had been on the rise since the nation’s landmark welfare reform legislation was passed in 1996—and at a distressingly fast pace.” (pp xvi-xvii)
In 1996, report Edin and Shaefer, Aid to Families with Dependent Children “was lifting more than a million households with children out of $2-a-day poverty every month. In the late 1990s, as welfare reform was gradually implemented across the states, its impact in reducing $2-a-day poverty began to decline precipitously. By mid-2011, TANF was lifting only about 300,000 households with children above the $2-a-day mark.” (pp. 7-8) Edin and Shaefer do not write directly about the effects of such poverty on children’s education, but it is not difficult to imagine the implications of parents’ jobs where hours and layoffs are unpredictable, overtime is demanded on short notice, and pay is at the state’s hourly minimum. “Housing instability is a hallmark of life among the $2-a-day poor. Children experiencing $2-a-day poverty are far more likely to move over the course of a year than other kids—even than children living in less extreme poverty. Much of this instability is fueled by perilous double-ups, which mark—and often speed—the descent of those who are already suffering from the fallout from nonsustaining work into the ranks of the desperately poor. Every family whose story is told in this book has doubled up with kin or friends at some point, because their earnings haven’t been sufficient to maintain a place of their own.” (p. 73)
In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Harvard sociologist, Matthew Desmond examines the low-income housing crisis in depth, tracing the mismatch of low incomes to the cost of rental housing in Milwaukee, and by extension, other American cities at a time when waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers are years’ long. Desmond paints, “a new portrait of the powerful ways the private housing sector is shaping the lives of poor American families and their communities.” His data demonstrate, “that problems endemic to poverty—residential instability, severe deprivation, concentrated neighborhood disadvantage, health disparities, even joblessness—stem from the lack of affordable housing in our cities.” (p. 333) When families are evicted, everything falls apart. Even parents’ case workers cannot locate them, and their children are cast adrift as they change schools again and again: “Most evicted households in Milwaukee have children living in them, and across the country, many evicted children end up homeless. The substandard housing and unsafe neighborhoods to which many evicted families must relocate can degrade a child’s health, ability to learn, and sense of self-worth. And if eviction has lasting effects on mothers’ depression, sapping their energy and happiness, then children will feel that chill too. Parents… wanted to provide their children with stability, but eviction ruined that, pulling kids in and out of school and batting them from one neighborhood to the next. When these mothers finally did find another place to live, they once again began giving landlords most of their income, leaving little for the kids… Poor families are living above their means, in apartments they cannot afford. The thing is, those apartments are already at the bottom of the market. Our cities have become unaffordable to our poorest families, and this problem is leaving a deep and jagged scar on the next generation.” (p. 299) Desmond describes one mother lucky enough to receive a $628-per-month TANF check, a woman eventually evicted because her income would not cover rent of $550 per month and leave enough for utilities and other necessities.
Like Desmond, Jane Collins and Victoria Mayer, sociologists from the University of Wisconsin and Colby College, have studied poverty in Milwaukee. In Both Hands Tied: Welfare Reform and the Race to the Bottom in the Low-Wage Labor Market, they examine our society’s mistaken beliefs about the causes of extreme poverty and possible ways to address it: “In America, we tend to think of welfare as the opposite of work and to associate it with idleness and lack of moral fiber. In our national conception of civic virtue, we set those who receive welfare at one end of a continuum and ‘hard working taxpayers’ at the other. Yet history tells us that welfare and work often intertwine. Welfare rolls have expanded and contracted in inverse relation to employment—swelling in times when jobs were scarce and dwindling when they were readily available. And policymakers have often shaped welfare programs to serve the needs of employers.” (4)
The women Collins and Mayer profile in their study discover that the jobs they are able to secure to meet the requirements of the 1996 welfare reform are unsustainable. Many women are forced to return to TANF, even as they near their time-limits in the program: “Nearly all—94 percent—applied for benefits as a direct result of… a problem providing care for themselves or someone in their family. In each instance, they found the demands of their jobs incompatible with their ability to provide a bare minimum of care… Forty percent of the women we interviewed turned to welfare to receive caretaker-of-newborn benefits for a maximum of twelve weeks after the birth of a child. Several women who had difficult pregnancies or birth experiences also received a month or two of W-2 Transitions support immediately before or after their child was born.” (p. 84) Jobs presented overwhelming challenges for parents trying to arrange child care: “Many women did not know what hours they would be working until they read the schedule posted at the beginning of each week. Some were ‘on call’ and could be asked to take an extra shift, or to change shifts, at any time. Some of the worst situations were those where they would go to work not knowing when they would get off.” (pp. 101-102)
In a recent Washington Post commentary, Philip Cohen, a sociologist from the University of Maryland, pleads for an overhaul of social policy that only serves to isolate the families with the least income without providing any assistance. His data uses the federal government’s poverty yardstick, not Edin’s more alarming $2 per person, per day measure of extreme poverty, but he reaches the very same conclusion: “Our current tax policy (principally the CTC [Child Tax Credit] and the Earned Income Tax Credit) reduces child poverty to the shameful 17 percent it is from the catastrophic 24 percent it would be otherwise. The problem with these credits is that they only help people with jobs, leaving those who can’t work—which is most of the poorest families—without assistance… You need a job to claim the CTC, on the cruel logic that the government doesn’t want to ‘disincentivize’ work. The current CTC costs about $50 billion per year but does almost nothing to help the very poor…. So we have 3.4 million children living in ‘deep poverty,’ in families with incomes less than half of what the government says they need….”
He explains: “There are about 6 million poor families with children in the United States—which means nearly 1 in 5 families with children in the wealthiest nation on the planet are living in poverty. My analysis of the latest federal data shows that, on average, these families’ income—including tax credits and all sources of welfare—is about $9,000 below the poverty line. That means ensuring no children grow up in poor households would cost $57 billion a year. (To put that in perspective, that’s how much money we’d get if Apple brought back the $200 billion it has stashed overseas, and paid just 29 percent tax on it—it’s a big problem, but it’s small compared to the wealth of our society.”)