Policy Resource

Fifty Percent of our Future

Sep 18, 2012

Politicians often say that children are so important because they represent our future.

Well, according to a Census Bureau report released today, almost half of that future is at risk because so many young children live in families with income insufficient to make ends meet. And one fourth of that future is spending its early years in outright poverty.

If there is any good news in the statistics on household income and poverty released today, it is that the poverty level has remained stable and did not increase as many expected. Yet young children under six remain the age group consistently at the lowest end of any income level—48 percent are under 200 percent of poverty, just under 25 percent are below the poverty line, and 12 percent—one in every eight—lives in a family whose income is below 50 percent of poverty. The poverty threshold for a family of four with two children is $22,811 per year, or $5,703 per family member.

Too often our political discourse brings children into the mix only in talking about the kind of world they will inherit, as if how we prepare them for that world is irrelevant to its ultimate shape. So we find ourselves asking the perennial question: What does it mean that one in four young children in America lives below the federal poverty line? And that another quarter live between that line of demarcation and 200% of poverty—the point below which economists find that families’ income can’t cover the necessities of life?

It means that these young children are spending the most vulnerable years developmentally in circumstances rife with situations that place them at risk. They may lack access to adequate nutrition, live in unstable housing, shiver in winter because there isn’t enough money to pay the heating bill. They are less likely to have access to rich early learning experiences. Their parents may be stressed to the limit with the challenges of holding a job, finding and affording child care, keeping stable housing, and organizing their lives’ complicated logistics. This stress can affect the parent-child relationship that can buffer young children from the consequences of adverse experiences. Children who start out in poverty are more likely to fall behind in their language development, lag behind in later reading proficiency, and experience learning disabilities and developmental delays.

The effects of poverty and related adverse experiences can follow children into adulthood, and timing matters. Poverty early in life can have a particularly pernicious effect, reducing earnings capacity and hours worked and increasing the likelihood of obesity and other poor health outcomes.

Back to that future we’re trying to save for our children. Today’s infants and toddlers will be part of the core workforce in thirty or so years. That workforce will need to be highly skilled to enable us to compete in the global economy. Children need to get a strong foundation now to make a full contribution later, when it is most needed. The Census Bureau report tells us that almost half of this workforce is starting life with at least some level of risk that they will not reach their potential. And the research tells us it will be hard for them to shake negative early experiences.

Of course, not every young children living in an economically disadvantaged family will fall behind. But we cannot afford to have so many children at risk if we want to ensure that vision of a strong national future comes true.

Our national debate after the election will be about budget deficits, sequestration, and taxes, not children growing up in poverty. The deficit is clearly a problem that must be dealt with, or it will certainly place a heavy burden on our children. But how we deal with it matters. Federal funding for children already is shrinking, and this trend is expected to continue for the next decade. If the sequester—that is, the cuts to discretionary defense and domestic spending mandated in last summer’s debt ceiling deal (enacted in the Budget Control Act)—is not averted, many programs important for healthy early development will be hit hard. As many as 96,179 children would be turned away from Head Start, 80,000 could lose child care services, 26,949 fewer children would receive early intervention services, and 212,958 fewer children would be vaccinated.

These programs provide the scaffolding for building strong young brains—not just proven early learning programs such as Early Head Start, but nutrition, housing, heating, family support, and health programs as well. In fact, measures of poverty and income due out in November that take into account these in-kind benefits will show that social programs are successful in alleviating some economic disadvantage.

On the surface, shared sacrifice sounds like an equitable idea: everyone gives up something to meet a common objective. But when the most vulnerable members of our society sacrifice in this way, they are giving up basic necessities of life. Surely calling on some young children to give up nutritious meals, a stimulating early learning opportunity, a place to call home, is neither equitable nor smart. When we fail to make sure one half of our future has the best possible start, the other half may find achieving a strong, competitive nation to be an elusive goal.

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