Public Neglect, Official Inaction Fuel Rise of US Poverty

By David R. Francis writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 2002 | Go to article overview

Public Neglect, Official Inaction Fuel Rise of US Poverty


David R. Francis writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Proportionately more Americans are poor. The income of middle- class households has slipped a little. Income inequality has worsened a bit.

Those are the highlights of Census Bureau reports last week on poverty and income in the United States in 2001.

Poverty usually increases when the economy weakens and unemployment rises. But boom or slump, the US has a higher poverty level by most measures than any other industrialized nation. To many poverty experts, Americans don't seem to care enough to end this embarrassment.

"It's real simple: We choose not to," says Timothy Smeeding, an economist at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. "It's not a priority."

President Bush proposed a tax cut that benefits primarily the well off. Congress approved it with some Democratic help.

As to a hike in the minimum wage that might lift some families out of poverty or at least make them less poor, it's been frozen in Congress for years, though Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts hopes to attach a minimum-wage boost to a pension reform bill before Congress adjourns for the November elections.

In contrast, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has tackled his country's high level of child poverty head on.

"A very ambitious program," says Jane Waldfogel, an economist at Columbia University, New York. It's estimated that 1 million British children have already been lifted out of poverty.

Starting in 1998, the British government offered universal childcare for 4-year-olds. Next year, 3-year-olds will be eligible under the plan.

Mr. Blair's Labour government has introduced a national minimum wage at a relatively higher level than in the US.

Britain's "Sure Start" program, helps provide children up to 3 years old with home visits, family support, and health services. It covers proportionately more children than early Head Start in the US. Adolescents in poor families get money to stay in school.

Britain's equivalent of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is more generous than the US program. It provides poorly paid workers with extra income. To a degree, it offsets the free market's tendency to pay those at the bottom less than needed to raise a family properly.

In the US, the poverty rate for children in the 1990s was worse than in 19 other rich countries, according to a study by Sheldon Danziger, an economist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Referring to Mr. Bush's campaign slogan, he titled the study, "No Child Left Behind?" - with a question mark.

It shows that 22.3 percent of children in 1997 lived in families with incomes less than half the median.

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