sad little boy hugging a doll

The Shame of Child Poverty

Everybody who has kept up even a fleeting familiarity with the news over the past year knows that desperately poor migrant families attempting to cross the southern border have been subject to horrendous treatment by immigration authorities. Images of children in cage-like prison settings are, or ought to be, seared into our collective conscience. So, too, grotesque scenes of toddlers being paraded before judges to face questioning about their immigration status will, I am sure, one day help define for historians the unbridled ugliness of this moment.

A couple weeks ago, the immigration attorney Martin Garbus published a piece in the Nation magazine about what he has seen in detention facilities in Texas in recent months. He described flimsily clad families being kept in hieleras, deliberately over-chilled processing centers, for days on end; and of those same families then being put in “cages, cyclone fencing between them, as though they are animals.” He wrote of a mother and two children being given only two bologna sandwiches, which had to last over four days. “Sometimes they missed food for an entire day,” Garbus wrote, “and their illnesses were not treated.”

None of this, in a country as flush with cash, food and resources as is America, is remotely necessary. All of it, this web of morally heinous actions, is being done – in our names – to terrorize, humiliate, and punish poor people who have had the temerity to dare to dream that the United States might still offer a safe harbor. It is being done to deter families from trying to secure better futures for their poor, malnourished, educationally and economically deprived children.

In such a cruel age, it’s hardly a surprise that the Trump Administration’s proposed changes to the Public Charge rules – regulations that allow immigration authorities to deny visas to people deemed to be, or likely to become, drains on the public purse — are aimed at excluding millions of immigrants, including children, from vital nutritional, medical, and housing assistance programs. It is a reform opposed by pretty much every public health agency, by doctors, by nutritional specialists, by educators, and it is guaranteed to worsen both poverty itself and also the life-limiting consequences of that poverty. Nor is it a surprise that public housing programs are being gutted. Nor that Republican state governments, backed by the Trump administration, are hell-bent on imposing work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid benefits. Nor that the president keeps submitting budgets to Congress that would slash programs such as WIC and Head Start. Nor that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was gutted and what few regulations it had managed to impose on the pay day lending industry in recent years were largely rolled back – meaning that the poorest of poor families are now even more vulnerable to ludicrously usurious interest rates and to permanent debt-cycles.

It would be tempting to lay all the blame for this at Trump’s feet. Certainly, in his seeking out of new and creative ways to punish the poor, he merits all the opprobrium that can be heaped on him. But, alas, he’s not alone in his callous disregard for those with the least resources and the least political power. This country has, as anyone who has read Michael Harrington, or studied the labor conditions of sharecroppers, or thought about the economic system that grew up around slavery, a long and deeply dishonorable history of brutalizing poor people, in particular kids, of blaming them for their poverty, and of turning a blind eye to soul-destroying conditions when, morally, what was required was intervention on a massive scale.

In 1966, Robert Kennedy toured Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, talking to poor families about their lives. He returned north deeply shaken. He talked of seeing “children with distended stomachs,” and of kids unable to attend school regularly because they didn’t even have adequate clothing to wear to classes. It was, he said sadly, “a terrible reflection on our society.” 

Thirty years later, in 1996, President Bill Clinton presided over a dramatic constriction of the welfare system. One part of this set of changes made it extremely hard for immigrants to access a large swath of public benefits.

Another turn of the wheel on, when I was researching my book The American Way of Poverty in the years following the 2008 financial collapse, I talked to children who had never slept in beds, their resting place each night, in their overcrowded apartments, being simply a mattress on the hard floor; to boys and girls who routinely missed breakfasts, often missed lunch, and sometimes ate nothing more than a small plate of rice and beans for dinner. I met schoolchildren who lived in church basements and in old cars. I spoke to a grandfather in Idaho standing in line at a food bank for little more than bags of frozen potatoes, because he had no other way to feed his grandkids. 


In February, a huge report on child poverty, and how to tackle it, was published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. It was the fruit of more than three years of research by many of the country’s pre-eminent poverty experts, commissioned by Congress in 2015 to look at specific policy solutions to stubbornly high child poverty levels.

It explored the cost to society of having roughly 10 million children living below the poverty line, in terms of lost productivity, increased crime, poor health, diminished educational outcomes, and so on. It estimated those costs to the American economy to range as high as one trillion dollars annually. And it proposed a number of combinations of rigorously researched policy changes that, at a cost of no more than $108.8 billion per year for the most ambitious of the sets of actions – far less than the cost of the tax cuts passed largely for the benefit of affluent Americans and corporations in December 2017 — could reduce child poverty by more than fifty percent over the course of a decade. 

These changes included increasing access to housing assistance. Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Creating a $3,000 per child annual child allowance. Bulking up public health insurance systems for women and children. Raising the Federal minimum wage. And, in a recommendation that must have been particular anathema to Trump and his nativist advisers, “increasing immigrants’ access to safety net programs.”

The report should have made banner headlines when it came out. After all, here were the leading voices in the field carefully explaining why America is on the exact wrong track when it comes to tackling child poverty, and just as carefully detailing how to reverse these trends. But this being the Trump era, when we have been reduced to musing about the latest mendacious, sub-literate tweet, rather than to discussing substantive policy issues, it was largely ignored. The report, which took so much effort to compile, landed with a whimper rather than a roar.

There are so many catastrophes associated with Trump’s hold on power that it’s easy to get lost in the fog. But the deliberate exacerbation of already scandalous levels of child poverty must surely rank amongst the worst. The sadism of this moment – whether it be manifested in the deliberate humiliation and degradation of immigrant children, or in the ongoing assault on the social safety net – must never be ignored and never be forgotten. We will, one day, move beyond Trump and his corrupt, oligarchical regime. But to move beyond the pain inflicted, to implement the recommendations of the Child Poverty Study, for example, and to start making good the damage done to so many people by the lurch toward sadism-as-public policy, well that will take a Marshall Plan level of effort. And it will also take an ability to focus honestly on the big picture that, in recent years, we have as a country been sorely unable to achieve.

One Reply to “The Shame of Child Poverty”

  1. This is completely and utterly true, I an thankful that someone is finally telling the truth about issues, not “the war on poverty is over” AND still talking about issues that have taken a back burner in the political conversation.
    FYI this is Leo not Julie

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