US Poverty: Past, Present and Future
GK: Where does child poverty fit in this picture?
PE: Over 20 percent of children live in poverty, and over 36 percent of the extremely poor are children. Also, over half of the children in this country under age 6 who live in a household where there’s a single mom are poor. That’s another stunning number.
We have to invest in all of those aspects of what happens to children, and that truly is an investment. It’s an investment in that child’s future, and the country’s future. Economist Harry Holzer has shown that the cost of sustained childhood poverty is more than $500 billion per year, or 4 percent of GDP. Clearly, from under-education and under-inclusion in the economy you can see there must be obvious costs in terms of crime, public benefits, lost consumption.
Child poverty is family poverty—and the families with children that are clearly, hugely worse off are the families headed by single moms. It’s disproportionately a factor of the situation of the single mom, with an overlay of race and ethnicity.
And so if you want to tackle that you have to talk about the situation of the mom. The conservatives say, “She should get married.” But she ought to be able to earn enough to support her children without being required to get a second income. So, the question of child poverty comes back very fundamentally to the question of work, and income from work. And we just don’t talk about it that way.
The second issue about child poverty is education. Because if that child is going to grow up and get out of poverty, he or she has to have a good education and have the maximum chance to get a good job.
The fact is there are millions of young people who are out in the streets—very disproportionately young people of color—who are out of school, out of work, and not in trouble with the law, but who face lives of not reaching their potential. There’s no serious strategy to look at the pathways from youth to adulthood.
There ought to be—instead of the cradle-to-prison pipeline—everything that creates the childhood to adulthood pathway that is maximally successful for young people. And two things are essential: it’s heavily in the K-12 experiences of especially inner-city young people; and then it is the employment opportunities that are available to them. That’s a subject that needs to be lifted up to a very high degree of significance.
But—and there’s a big but here—what is the future of jobs in this country? And I think we have a serious thing to worry about in that regard—not just the amount of low-wage work but the amount of work overall. We need to be thinking about everything we can do to make sure enough jobs are there and we need to be doing the education and training. And you have to start by making the rich people pay their fair share. Because you need to have the revenues so you have the money to do the social investment.
GK: You mentioned an overlay of race and ethnicity that contributes to child poverty—can you say more about that?
PE: We still have poverty rates for African-Americans that are close to three times the white rate. Same for Latinos. But the African-American poverty rate tends to be more intergenerational, more persistent. Same for Native Americans. And what are the causes of that?
A lot of it is something that does start in childhood in terms of the inadequate schooling that too many children of color receive. Some are issues in the community and the home that we don’t talk about enough. And then there are these societal frames—and the criminal justice system is the largest one—that are just kind of huge traps that are out there. So, if a kid gets into the juvenile justice system he or she is much more disproportionately likely to get into the adult criminal justice system, this is the pipeline. And there isn’t a national consciousness of how racialized the whole thing is.
As far as the criminal justice system itself is concerned, you look at it every stage of the way: more African-Americans arrested for the same crime; more processed through the system as opposed to the charge being dropped; more incarcerated as opposed to receiving probation, etc. It’s very related to the drug policy. That all makes a major contribution to the level of poverty. My basic view is that essentially you need to treat people who are low-level dealers or users as a public health question.
GK: With one in three Americans—over 100 million Americans—now living at less than twice the poverty threshold, how does that group achieve political salience?
PE: It seems to me that if we could put it on the table and get people to see that essentially they’re in a place where they really are not getting a fair shake, that there’s a politics in it.
But I also know there are an awful lot of people who have a lot of amplification capacity who don’t want people to understand that. But still I really do wonder why we don’t have people who hold elected office who speak more clearly? Where is the Robert Kennedy of this generation?
Something has to happen to get people off their tail, to get people back to the level of commitment and enthusiasm that they had—it turns out ever so briefly—when they elected Obama to be president. And to get out into the streets—both literally and metaphorically. We had Madison, which we might say was our Cairo. And we need people all over the country to stand up in the same way and say, “I’m opposed to the direction that these things are going.” There has to be some sense of outrage about that and the only way that’s going to be is if people will stand up and speak up for themselves. Any sort of sustained change from the progressive side has got to come from the grassroots. We’re the side that depends on people power.
GK: Do you ever think about what Bobby or Ted Kennedy might say at this moment in terms of where we are and what we need to do?
PE: I think they both would be saying exactly what we’ve been saying in this conversation—which is that we have to be helping people who need help and we have to be insisting on a proper contribution to the running of the government from people who can afford it easily. And they would speak to the extent to which there are disproportionate effects on people of color.