Among the world's leading economies, the United States has the
largest income disparities and large numbers of low-income families
with children. Poverty makes it difficult for parents to promote
their children's development and, as a result, their children are
less successful in school, less employable and less productive
citizens. As President Barack Obama recently emphasized, this does
not bode well for the future of our economy and nation.
But hasn't this always been the case?
Yes, but two trends are particularly disturbing.
First, inequality is worse and growing more dramatically in the
United States than in other affluent countries, exacerbated by the
recent recession and slow recovery.
Second, and even more threatening, middle-income families have
begun to look more and more like low-income families in many
characteristics related to child development. This forecasts the
shrinking of the middle class, not a good sign for democracies, and
the possibility of a growing group of unemployable people well into
The long-term consequences could be staggering. The United States
already has millions of workers unemployed while higher-skilled
jobs go begging. Private enterprise needs customers to fuel
economic growth, but those with low incomes can barely afford the
It is important to recognize, as Washington University professor
Mark Rank's Nov. 10 Forum article was headlined, "Poverty Isn't
About 'Them,' It's About Us."
Poverty is nearly twice as common in the United States as in
Europe, and nearly half of U.S. children will live at some point in
a family that qualifies for food stamps. Two-thirds of impoverished
citizens are white, and most are employed but their jobs do not pay
a living wage, are less likely to pay benefits, are more likely to
require working non-standard hours and are unstable.
So how does poverty affect children? Most obviously, low-income
parents are less able to provide their children with experiences
and things that cost money - high-quality preschool, trips to the
museum, summer camp, college, etc.
But some very important factors that affect children's futures
are more subtle, and research suggests that they operate early in
For example, a low-income household is often a rather
unpredictable environment for children. There may be a number of
children and adults living together, and household members may
change over time. Children's daily schedules may be complicated and
often changing to accommodate the realities of single parents who
work, perhaps at odd hours, while trying to cope with limited and
undependable transportation and child care. Such families move more
often, too, again producing instability and uncertainty. …