Inequality Injures Kids We Must Help Our Children Pull Themselves out of Poverty, Writes Pitt Psychology Professor

By McCall, Robert B | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), January 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

Inequality Injures Kids We Must Help Our Children Pull Themselves out of Poverty, Writes Pitt Psychology Professor


McCall, Robert B, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


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 future.

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 necessities.

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 children's lives.

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. …

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