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Poverty Stacks the Odds against Children

We all lose from the harm this causes

Marian Wright Edelman | 5/22/2019, 7:30 a.m.
We all lose in a nation that allows millions of children to face the minute by minute, hour by hour, ...

The Children’s Defense Fund recently released our latest report on Ending Child Poverty Now once again showing just how much poverty is hurting our children and nation and sullying our pretensions to be an equal opportunity society.

We all lose in a nation that allows millions of children to face the minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day harms of poverty.

In 2017 over 12.8 million of our children lived below the official poverty line—$25,094 for a family of four—based only on cash income. Nearly half lived in extreme poverty below half the poverty line. More than two-thirds of poor children in related families live with an adult who works and more than a third live with an adult who works full-time year round.

Poverty stacks the odds against children and stalks them down every avenue of their lives. As our latest national plea to end child poverty now carefully documents, poverty places children at risk of hunger, homelessness, sickness, violence, educational failure and family stress and too often deprives them of positive early childhood experiences and opportunities that prepare more affluent children for school, college and work.

Poverty wears down children’s emotional reserves, saps their spirits and confidence and threatens their potential and aspirations. From infancy through adulthood poverty gnaws away at child resiliency and hope and harms them for life.

Beyond its individual human costs, child poverty has huge economic costs for all of us. One study shows the lost productivity and extra health and crime costs stemming from child poverty add up to about $700 billion a year, or 3.5 percent of GDP.

Another study found eliminating child poverty between the prenatal and age 5 years would increase lifetime earnings between $53,000 and $100,000 a child—a total lifetime benefit of $20 to $36 billion for all babies born in a given year. And we cannot measure the countless innovations and discoveries that never occur because so much child potential is lost.

Child poverty also fuels a destructive intergenerational cycle of poverty with compounding effects that can have lasting consequences into adulthood. Children who grow up poor have a harder time escaping poverty as adults.

Research shows people who experienced poverty at any point during childhood are more than three times as likely to be poor at age 30 as those who were never poor as children. The longer a child is poor, the greater her risk of becoming a poor adult. A 2017 Urban Institute report found only 20 percent of children who spent half their childhoods in poverty were consistently working or in school during their twenties.

No families should have to fight so desperately to beat the odds in this battle that is so hard to win in a nation with the largest economy in the world. We must act now to save our children’s lives and our nation’s soul. Inaction is not an option; poverty is far too costly for our children and nation to continue.

Ending Child Poverty Now shows we already have the solutions and that by investing just a small percentage of our federal budget into existing programs and policies, we can make significant progress and rescue many child lives from stunted futures. We just need the moral decency, political will and economic common sense to do it.

Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children's Defense Fund.