This Week in Poverty: the impact of stress and early intervention on poor kids, the state of children in America, and the GOP breaks out some Golden Oldie myths about poor people, black people and a lack of work ethic… But first:

The Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,300 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent.

Kids in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all kids.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty twice as high—nearly 30 percent.

Impact of public policy, 1964–1973: poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

Number of Americans “deep poor,” “poor” or “near poor”: 100 million, or 1 in 3.

GOP: Welcome to South Carolina

Kids 8 and younger living in poverty: 28 percent, tied for fifth worst in the US (including DC).

People living in poverty: 18.2 percent, eighth worst.

High school graduation rate (2008): 61.9 percent, third worst.

Unemployment rate (avg. month, 2010): 11.2 percent, sixth worst.

On Children and Poverty

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has an outstanding op-ed on the link between “toxic stress” in young children and their educational, health and social outcomes later in life.

Research shows how pliable the brain is in the prenatal and early years—how brain architecture can be changed for better or worse and then is increasingly difficult to modify over time. (For more info, check out these three videos from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child.)

Kristof writes that parental affection and presence are key since “the stress emerges when a child senses persistent threats but no protector.” Early intervention programs also make a huge difference. The Nurse-Family Partnership does home visits with poor women who are pregnant for the first time, until the child reaches age 2. Studies show that at age 6 participating kids are one-third as likely to have behavioral or intellectual problems as kids who weren’t enrolled, and half as likely to be arrested at age 15.

The American Academy of Pediatrics concludes, “Protecting young children from adversity is a promising, science-based strategy to address many of the most persistent and costly problems facing contemporary society.”

Kristof’s article made this reader wonder how we as a society help parents “protect young people from adversity.” One important question: where will the good jobs come from considering our decimated manufacturing sector? It’s tough to be a constant, protective presence for your children—especially as a single parent—when you’re working two or even three low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to lift your family out of poverty. It’s also tough to provide adequate childcare when only one in seven families that qualifies for childcare assistance actually receives it. Finally, we don’t help parents on welfare when job-training and education aren’t allowed to count toward their work requirement, making it even more difficult for them to obtain better jobs to support their families.

Children’s Economic Well-Being Deteriorating

A recent report from Brookings Institution Fellow Julia Isaacs—commissioned by First Focus—suggests that the recession continues to take a heavy toll on children and families, including an increase in 2011 in both child poverty (the official stats don’t come out until September) and the number of children receiving food stamps.

More than 1 in 4 American children now receive food stamps (SNAP)—that’s nearly 21 million kids, and 2 million more than last year. The program is open to individuals with incomes of less than 130 percent of poverty—about $2000 per month for a family of three.

Using state-specific data on unemployment rates and SNAP caseloads, Isaacs also predicts that child poverty increased in 2011 by 340,000 children, which would raise the child poverty rate by about a half percentage point. (Isaac writes that her prediction might be a conservative one—her colleagues have estimated a rise of as much as 2 percentage points to 24 percent child poverty.)

Finally, 6.5 million children were living with unemployed parents during an average month in 2011, 3 million with a parent looking for work six months or longer. The report observes that poverty and a parent being unemployed both affect a child’s development in the short-term—including psychological stress and academic performance, and increased incidences of abuse and neglect—and in diminished career opportunities and earnings as an adult over the long-term.

A Little Help From Obama

When President Obama proposed his American Jobs Act back in September, he included $1.5 billion toward summer jobs and year-round employment for low-income youth ages 16–24. That was important, considering that just 49 percent of that age group was employed in July, the month when youth employment usually peaks, including only 34.6 percent of African-American youth and 42.9 percent of Hispanic youth.

The bill was dead-on-arrival given a GOP majority in the House and a filibustering Senate. So now President Obama is trying to use the bully pulpit to secure commitments from government, businesses and non-profits to hire “Opportunity Youth”—the 6.7 million young people ages 16-24 who are unemployed, not enrolled in school, and do not have a college degree. (They comprise 17 percent of the 39 million 16–24 year olds in the nation.) So far, employers have responded with 70,000 paid summer jobs and 110,000 unpaid summer or year-round work opportunities. The administration’s goal is to reach 250,000 jobs by summer, including 100,000 paid jobs and internships.

“It’s a good start in terms of focusing some attention on an issue that desperately needs it—before we get into the summer,” says Desmond Brown, consultant to Half in Ten, a national campaign to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years. “We still need a lot more job training and work opportunities for low-income and less educated workers, but given the political landscape, this is a good kick-off.”

The White House is making the case that investing in these jobs saves money over the long-term. It estimates $93 billion in lost tax revenue and higher government spending to support these 6.7 million disconnected youth in 2011 alone. Without intervention, over their lifetime there will be “a $1.6 trillion burden to meet the increased needs and lost revenue from this group.”

An additional note on how job opportunities like these can reduce poverty: last year, Half in Ten made a significant finding that only 4 percent of households with more than one earner are in poverty as compared to 24 percent with a single earner. While conservatives seize on that data to say that marriage is the way out of poverty—it isn’t the only path. Summer and year-round programs aimed at connecting disadvantaged youth to education and work experience are critical in this regard.

GOP Would-Be Presidents Peddling Myths

“The African-American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” said Newt Gingrich; “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” declared Rick Santorum; and “We are…dragged down by a resentment of success,” offered Mitt Romney.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow does a superb job debunking myths—explaining that, for example, “the largest group of SNAP beneficiaries is by far non-Hispanic whites” and “most SNAP participants are either too old or too young to work”—and also lays out the GOP’s use over the years of a “historical mythology which evokes the black bogyman, who saps the money from the whites who earn it.”

Joy Moses, a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, brings a dose of reality to Santorum’s rhetoric as well. She points out that “most people receiving public benefits aren’t collecting somebody else’s money, but their own” in the form of Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment Insurance—programs that beneficiaries and their employers have paid for with taxes taken out of their paychecks. Also, unemployment insurance and TANF (cash welfare for families)—which represent just 4 percent of federal spending—pay such small amounts and are time-limited so that people couldn’t live off of them even if they wanted to. (TANF benefits don’t raise a family’s income above 50 percent of the poverty line in any state!)

As for Romney, he seems to be onto something: the cause of the economic collapse, a shrinking middle-class and rising poverty is that we simply drag ourselves down due to success envy. It’s got nothing to do with economic mobility, low wages, lack of access to higher education, unequal public schools, a deteriorating safety net, gutted financial regulation, etc. In fact, at bedtime tonight I told my children that some day they too can sell toxic securities that they themselves bet against, watch people’s lifetime savings go down the tubes and be rewarded with mega-bonuses for doing it—and be proud!

Quote of the Week

“Race is usually less about facts than historical mythology, which evokes the black bogyman, who saps the money from the whites who earn it. Ever since blacks first arrived on these shores in chains, they have been perceived as lazy and dependent on whites—first as slaves, and then as ‘entitled’ citizens.” —Charles Blow

Get Involved

Half In Ten
Coalition on Human Needs
First Focus
Children’s Defense Fund

More Reading

Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs
No Longer the Land of Opportunity
SC Senate Panel Approves Unemployment Bills
Legal Momentum: Women and Poverty
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: Poverty and Income

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday Morning. Your constructive comments—agree or disagree—are appreciated. Please follow me on Twitter as well.