Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Poverty is Poison

Very few "non-poor" Americans understand contemporary poverty. New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman often speaks to the cruel reality facing those who do know poverty in a personal and immediate way. What he published on Monday, February 18, 2008, should be spread far and wide. What he describes lines up with what we observe and know day-by-day here in inner city Dallas, Texas.

Here's the link:

Here's the full text of his challenging essay entitled "Poverty Is Poison":

“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.

So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.

L. B. J. declared his “War on Poverty” 44 years ago. Contrary to cynical legend, there actually was a large reduction in poverty over the next few years, especially among children, who saw their poverty rate fall from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969.

But progress stalled thereafter: American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, and the fight against poverty was largely abandoned.

In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line, substantially more than in 1969. And even this measure probably understates the true depth of many children’s misery.

Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain.

America’s failure to make progress in reducing poverty, especially among children, should provoke a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, what it often seems to provoke instead is great creativity in making excuses.

Some of these excuses take the form of assertions that America’s poor really aren’t all that poor — a claim that always has me wondering whether those making it watched any TV during Hurricane Katrina, or for that matter have ever looked around them while visiting a major American city.

Mainly, however, excuses for poverty involve the assertion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich.

But the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.

That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step.

I’d bracket those new studies on brain development in early childhood with a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked a group of students who were in eighth grade in 1988. The study found, roughly speaking, that in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents.

None of this is inevitable.

Poverty rates are much lower in most European countries than in the United States, mainly because of government programs that help the poor and unlucky.

And governments that set their minds to it can reduce poverty. In Britain, the Labor government that came into office in 1997 made reducing poverty a priority — and despite some setbacks, its program of income subsidies and other aid has achieved a great deal. Child poverty, in particular, has been cut in half by the measure that corresponds most closely to the U.S. definition.

At the moment it’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in this country. To their credit — and to the credit of John Edwards, who goaded them into it — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are proposing new initiatives against poverty. But their proposals are modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns.

I’m not blaming them for that; if a progressive wins this election, it will be by promising to ease the anxiety of the middle class rather than aiding the poor. And for a variety of reasons, health care, not poverty, should be the first priority of a Democratic administration.

But ultimately, let’s hope that the nation turns back to the task it abandoned — that of ending the poverty that still poisons so many American lives.



Anonymous said...

Also, lets secure the border so we won't have millions more coming in.

Anonymous said...

Hillary and Obama's initiatives are pure socialism and, in any case, presidents don't manage the economy--unless they are a dictator.

Becky said...

Ok, Wow. Deep breath.

Let me just add to the two negative responses so far that this article touches my heart deeply. To think that 1 in 5 children in this supposedly advanced country are below poverty level is shameful considering the overall wealth of our nation.
I'm guessing that many of those children have 1 or 2 parents working, yet are still below poverty level.
I don't have answers or ideas on how to change things, but this makes me want to listen for people who do and think about what I can do personally to strive for change. My three kids have full tummies, a safe warm bed to sleep in at night, so I guess I could turn a blind eye and tell the poor kids and their families that it's their own problem and I don't care. But, I DO care, and it IS my problem too.

Larry James said...

I try to be kind here. I attempt to create a respectful tone. I will continue to do that.

That said, to my two anonymous friends, let me say: You don't get it. At any level, you don't get it.

On the immigrant comment, see many posts before. The border is not as big a problem as our greed for cheap labor.

Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama are so far from socialism that it makes your comment comical.

Going forward, I urge anyone who wants to make a broad brush, useless comment to at least have the courage to identify themselves. At least then I could feel a bit more respect for you.

Anonymous said...

I have experienced generational poverty and can tell you first hand that as a very small child I was very aware of being poor and therefore different.
My siblings and I have all made it out of the cycle, but it was a different time. Now there is such a gulf between the haves and the have nots. Children are bombarded with all the things they don't have and will never have.
It isn't pretty and it brings back painful memories that I would rather forget, but I don't want any child to feel ashamed or angry because of poverty. The shame should be on us for not doing more.
Please keep speaking up for our children.


Larry James said...

Nancy, thank you for the personal and important words.

c hand said...

Are you being fair when you write :"...attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the ALLEGED abuses of welfare queens" Are welfare cheats like UFOs? Somebody somwhere said they saw something but nobody proved anything? Why do need the quailifier "ALLEGED"?

Anonymous said...

If Americans are serious about "Justice," let's spend roughly 100 billion a year on manpower and supplies by sending an army of builders to 3rd world counties to build better farming conditions, water supplies, power supplies, etc...

Since the US began war in Iraq, nearly 500 billion dollars has been spent in manpower and supplies to fight that war. We have listened to our President label this war as an act of justice. As a country, as long as we are willing to spend this much money in this short of time for a war on a foreign soil but are unwilling to spend that same amount of money for a "war on poverty," we allow the biblical concept of justice to be reduced to an act of war (and a war that, according to just war theory, is very suspect). It is a sad day when this any leader (who was supported heavily by Christiants) allows biblical terminology to be reduced to such a limited meaning, especially when a legitimate argument can be made that war is never an act of justice in the first place.


Anonymous said...


Apropos many recent caustic comments on this blog, Sojourners recently took the step of monitoring Jim Wallis's God's Politics blog for "meanies." The following link explains. They determined that a handful (actually 11) of comment makers were causing most of the discord, and sent an email asking them to stop, or be blocked from the site. Something to consider.

Larry James said...

chand, good question. Take the "welfare Cadillac" urban myth. The story was acknowleged to be a PR fabrication by Reagan administration officials after the President used the reference in public addresses. The abuse has always been overstated, especially among the poor who were supposed to receive the benefit. For example, most Food Stamp abuse has been perpetrated by retail merchants. That's what is meant by "Alleged."

Karen said...

Rex, I so much appreciate your comment, which makes one of the most important points of all. I've wanted to say it but couldn't think how.

Nancy's words are beautiful and cut through the rhetoric and the sidetracking that a few people want to use to get the important messages here off track.

'The shame should be on us for not doing more. Please keep speaking up for our children.'