Monday, September 17, 2012

What Poverty Means: Beyond the Antiseptic Numbers

Last week the Bureau of the Census released its annual report that estimates the poverty rate in the previous year, and I posted about "What the Official Poverty Rate is Missing," with my discussion focusing on various government anti-poverty programs that don't show up in the measure of income and the problems involved in measuring poverty by income rather than by using consumption. The same day, the Brookings Institution held a conference for various well-informed folks to react to the Census report, like Ron Haskins, Richard Burkhauser, Gary Burtless, Isabel Sawhill, Kay Hymowita, Wendell Primus. Many of them took an approach broadly similar to my own--that is, slicing and dicing the numbers to figure out the trends and patterns and strengths and weaknesses of the data.

But I was taken by the comments of Ralph Smith, senior vice-president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who focused on what the poverty numbers mean in more human sense for the prospects of children. The quotation is taken from the uncorrected transcript of the event, which is posted here. Smith said:

"There’s an antiseptic quality about the charts and graphs and the PowerPoint that feels to me as if it misses the issue and misses the reality of the lives of the people and the families about whom we speak. ...  I just can’t get to the point where I’m so captured by the data that I miss what these numbers mean for the lives and futures of the families about whom we speak, about the material conditions in which they live, about the aspirations they could hold onto for their kids and for the next generation.

"And I will confess a discomfort as I think about the one million children who despite these not-quite-so-bad numbers will be born into poverty next year. One million new entrants into poverty, and what we can predict now. And what we can certify on the day they are born is that more than 50 percent of them will spend half their childhoods in poverty. Twenty-nine percent of them will live in high poverty communities. Ten percent of them will be born low birth weight, a key indicator of cognitive delays and problems in school. Only 60 percent of them will have access to health care that meets the criteria for having a medical home. By age three, fewer than 75 percent of them will be in good or excellent health, and they’ll be three times more likely than their more affluent peers to have
elevated blood lead levels.

"More than 50 percent of them will not be enrolled in pre-school programs and by the time they enter kindergarten, most of them will test 12 to 14 months below the national norms in language and pre-reading skills. Nearly 50 percent of them will start first grade already two years behind their peers. During the early grades, these children are more likely to miss more than 20 days of school every year starting with kindergarten, and that record of chronic absence will be three times that of their peers. When tested in fourth grade, 80 percent of these children will score below proficient in reading and math. We know now that 22 percent of them will not graduate from high school, and that number rises to 32 percent for those who spend more half of their childhood in poverty. And to no one’s surprise, these sad statistics and deplorable data get even worse for children of color and children who live in communities of concentrated poverty. ...

"[T]his report brings bad news about a predictably bleak future in this the land of opportunity. ... We don’t spend as much as we need to, but until we do better with what we have, we’re not going to make the case for what we need. And we don’t care as much as we say we do because some kids matter more than others and some kids matter not at all. And I think these million kids are the kids who might matter not at all. And so when I see the numbers, I must admit that I flinch and I think they ought to as well because for these children, the numbers that matter most to their futures and to ours are one, the income of their parents, and two, the zip code of their homes. ...

"The view that I agree with most is the one that recognizes that persistent poverty is the challenge of our time. Like the world wars, the Great Depression, civil rights, persistent poverty is worthy of an engaged national as well as federal government. ...  Imagine that in 2015 candidates as they stumped in Iowa and New Hampshire and North Carolina had to confront the issue of persistent poverty and had to talk about it. And imagine that in 2016 there was a debate where a reporter would even ask a question about it, but where candidates would feel compelled to articulate their position. Most of us in this room, as good and as smart as we are, we cannot imagine that happening."
I'll just add that it has been remarkable to me during the last few years of sustained high unemployment and families under stress, how much our national political discussion has focused on the merits of different tax levels for those with high incomes, and how little our national political discussion has focused in any concrete way on how to assist the poor, and in particular on how to alter the trajectory of life for children living in poverty.