Are you a tiger mother, a soccer mom, a helicopter parent, an attachment mom, a permissive free spirit who just wants your child to be herself? Congratulations. Your kids have a good chance of turning out reasonably well. Not because you are a parenting genius who has hit on the perfect method but because you have the time and energy and cultural capital to give your child what he needs to be successful in today’s world no matter what child-raising method you choose. You are probably not, for example, poor, homeless, functionally illiterate, socially isolated, an addict, in prison, living in substandard housing, working three low-paid jobs—or unemployed for life. You have books in your house, and probably a computer too. You know enough to help your child with homework—and if not, you have the money or networks to find a tutor. You feel comfortable volunteering at your child’s school, being in the PTA, calling the principal, going to parent-teacher conferences. You can afford to take your child to the doctor and the dentist for regular care. If your child should happen to get arrested, as quite a few do—if he’s caught with pot, say, or spray-paints graffiti, or jumps a turnstile—there’s a good chance that the charges can be made to go away, or at least not become part of his permanent record. Your ex may have run off with your best friend, your apartment may be too small, you may hate your job—but you are still a white-collar, college-educated, middle-class person. And that makes all the difference for your children.
The biggest barrier to educational achievement today is not any of the things the media talk endlessly about: poorly prepared teachers, badly run schools, too many tests, low standards. It’s child poverty—which, like poverty in general, has just dropped out of the discourse. The Democrats don’t talk about it, except to wag the finger at deadbeat dads and teen moms, and the media don’t talk about it except in the context of crime or individual triumph. In fact, from the coverage you’d think our current crisis chiefly affected the middle classes—office managers, newly minted lawyers, college grads who have to move back in with their parents—when actually the unemployment rate for people with college degrees is 4.2 percent, which is where it was for all Americans before the recession. By contrast, for those with only a high school diploma unemployment is 9.4 percent; for high school dropouts it’s 14.2 percent. And those figures measure only those actively looking for work, not the millions who’ve given up or have never held a job (some 16.5 percent of black men over 20). All those women pushed off welfare, called success stories because they got a job as a receptionist or a security guard or a clerk, with supposedly the hope of something better to come? Forget them.
Inconveniently, though, the poor and near poor, whom we don’t care about, come attached to children, for whom we supposedly have some concern. So how are the kids doing?
Some facts from the National Center for Children in Poverty: one in five families is food-insecure, i.e., they don’t have enough food for everyone in the family at least some of the time. Health? Poor children are far more at risk than better-off kids: from secondhand smoke (32 percent vs. 12 percent of nonpoor children), low or moderate levels of lead in their blood (30 percent vs. 15 percent), lack of health insurance (16 percent vs. 8 percent) and lack of dental care (18 percent of poor kids hadn’t seen a dentist in the past year vs. 11 percent of nonpoor children, which is bad enough). Poor children are more likely to have asthma (18 percent vs. 13 percent). They are more likely to have missed five or more days of school for health-related reasons (20 percent vs. 15 percent). Twice as many poor parents report that their child has “definite or severe” emotional, behavioral or social problems (10 percent vs. 5 percent). Poor kids are also more likely to be obese, to get insufficient exercise, to be diagnosed with ADHD or other learning disabilities and to have mothers who are in poor health themselves. No wonder they are less likely to be described by their parents as being in very good or excellent health (71 percent vs. 87 percent).
Poor children’s home lives are more precarious. Almost one in five children in poor or low-income families had moved in the last year, which means disrupted schooling and stress. In 2007, 1.7 million kids had a parent in prison, including one in fifteen black children. In 2008, around 460,000 children spent time in foster care. In 2009, 2.2 million were being raised by grandparents or other relatives.
Poor kids are more likely to be raised by single mothers and to have parents who didn’t finish high school or go to college. Even just living with other poor people seems to harm kids. Those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods have lower reading scores; so do low-income kids who go to schools where the student body is 75 percent or more minority. Most black and Latino kids attend such schools. By the age of 2, poorer children have fallen cognitively behind those from wealthier families.
We’re looking at millions of kids, disproportionately black and Latino, who face a wide range of serious difficulties: how can that not affect their ability to do well in school? Moreover, the number of poor and near poor children is growing. In 2009 more than 1.2 million children entered poverty, even as school budgets are being cut all over the country: classes are getting bigger, teachers are being laid off, extracurriculars are being cut. You can see why the schools say they can’t do it all.
The parenting wars look like they are about children, but really they are only about each parent’s own child. That’s why they serve such a useful social function. Without them we might have to think about the frightening place America is becoming for ever more millions of kids. Who knows? We might even feel that we should do something about it.