Among the world’s leading economies, the United States has the largest income disparities and large numbers of low-income families with children. Poverty makes it difficult for parents to promote their children’s development and, as a result, their children are less successful in school, less employable and less productive citizens. As President Barack Obama recently emphasized, this does not bode well for the future of our economy and nation.
But hasn’t this always been the case?
Yes, but two trends are particularly disturbing.
First, inequality is worse and growing more dramatically in the United States than in other affluent countries, exacerbated by the recent recession and slow recovery.
Second, and even more threatening, middle-income families have begun to look more and more like low-income families in many characteristics related to child development. This forecasts the shrinking of the middle class, not a good sign for democracies, and the possibility of a growing group of unemployable people well into the future.
The long-term consequences could be staggering. The United States already has millions of workers unemployed while higher-skilled jobs go begging. Private enterprise needs customers to fuel economic growth, but those with low incomes can barely afford the necessities.
It is important to recognize, as Washington University professor Mark Rank’s Nov. 10 Forum article was headlined, “Poverty Isn’t About ‘Them,’ It’s About Us.”
Poverty is nearly twice as common in the United States as in Europe, and nearly half of U.S. children will live at some point in a family that qualifies for food stamps. Two-thirds of impoverished citizens are white, and most are employed but their jobs do not pay a living wage, are less likely to pay benefits, are more likely to require working non-standard hours and are unstable.
So how does poverty affect children? Most obviously, low-income parents are less able to provide their children with experiences and things that cost money — high-quality preschool, trips to the museum, summer camp, college, etc.
But some very important factors that affect children’s futures are more subtle, and research suggests that they operate early in children’s lives.
For example, a low-income household is often a rather unpredictable environment for children. There may be a number of children and adults living together, and household members may change over time. Children’s daily schedules may be complicated and often changing to accommodate the realities of single parents who work, perhaps at odd hours, while trying to cope with limited and undependable transportation and child care. Such families move more often, too, again producing instability and uncertainty.
Recent research indicates that this unpredictability can lead to chronic stress in young children and that extreme and continued stress can produce biochemical and neurological brain changes that are related to poorer mental abilities and less stable social and emotional behavior. It is not simply hyperbole to say that poverty can produce brain damage.
In addition, young children in low-income families are exposed to a markedly smaller vocabulary and less meaningful back-and-forth conversation with adults during their early years. These children also are less likely to attend high--quality preschools in which such conversation is commonplace, and studies show the outcome is lower literacy skills.
To be sure, many low-income families and children cope reasonably well with these limitations. But, on average, a dwindling middle class and increasing numbers of children being reared in less-than-supportive circumstances threatens future economic growth and social stability.
What can be done?
Research suggests that financial poverty per se contributes to chronic stress and its troubling ramifications in children. Studies in which low-income families were given cash supplements and the opportunity to earn more have produced beneficial results for their children — if the amount of money is sufficient. While “income supplementation” is politically unpopular, the earned income tax credit is more acceptable and could be broadened and increased.
An improved economy with more jobs that pay a living wage would help, of course, but will there be jobs for the unskilled? Increased training is clearly needed to help people become employable in today’s workplace. High schools, colleges, universities and community colleges should rethink how their offerings mesh with contemporary employment demands, and perhaps some of today’s private enterprises should reconsider their unwillingness to train their own workers.
High-quality preschool education is essential. Although conservatives focus on the fact that short-term results for Head Start often have been disappointing, the longer-term educational and employment benefits for children and the dollar return on investment for society are quite positive. Some new state-run programs are having substantial success improving school readiness even in the near term for both low- and middle-income children, but such programs must be well designed and implemented. President Barack Obama’s early-childhood-education proposal, which includes quality standards, is a step in the right direction.
It will not be easy to reverse these ominous trends, but it would be even harder to reverse the long-term consequences if we choose not to try.
Robert B. McCall is a professor of psychology and co-director of the Office of Child Development at the University of Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org).