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Poverty & Parenting

Why do all parents need to be concerned about poverty?

Why must all parents, even affluent ones, reflect on how poverty impacts their community and all children even those who are not poor? Why should those who have no children or have raised their children pay attention to poverty?

The answer is simple. Children are the future, everybody’s future. There is ample evidence that children raised in poverty do not thrive, have more health problems, are less likely to become educated citizens who can make a living, and are more likely to need government resources not just as children but as adults.

This means we can expect high downstream costs from those who do not reach their potential and contribute to society but rather use its resources. Sadly, many children who grow up in poverty will stay in poverty so their children will be raised in poverty.

How big is the problem? Sixteen million children live in poverty in this country, 22% of America’s children. How is poverty defined? An income of $23,550 for a family of four. The saddest stats I found: 1.3 million children are homeless and one out of four are “food insecure” our current euphemism for going to bed hungry.

You are dead wrong if you think the US fares well in comparison with other industrialized nations. Shamefully we rank 34 out of 35 countries in the category of children living in poverty. And, according to New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, we also rank poorly on the Social Progress Index in categories of health, ecosystem sustainability, and even access to the Internet. The director of the Social Progress Imperative that generates the Index writes, “…for a country that has Silicon Valley, lack of access to information is a red flag.”

What has happened to America, once the land of opportunity? Why are so many children deprived of a chance to make it? Why do we ignore the downstream costs of children raised in poverty? Hundreds of books and articles point out root causes of poverty like income inequality, family instability, failing schools, low wages, and public policies that have reduced funding or eliminated agencies and programs that once could help. Robert Putnam, author of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” himself came from a family of modest means and writes, “I assumed, so could kids from modest backgrounds today…” After researching and writing the book, “…now I know better.”

We once paid attention to the unfortunate; the whole community rallied to rebuild a burned barn. Today many of us do not pay attention to the community around us. Are we possibly so focused on the screen we look at today that we don’t think about tomorrow?

What if we could change the poverty pattern? Actually we can. Several longitudinal studies show that nurses sent to the homes of vulnerable mothers can make an amazing difference. One such study comparing outcomes of vulnerable families that did and did not get nurse visits, found the group assigned to nurse visits did better. Death rates for both infants and mothers were lower, child abuse and neglect rates were half that of the control group, children had higher grade point averages and were less liked to be arrested.

Can we afford such services? A recent study done by the Women’s Foundation of Southern Arizona (disclosure: I am a former board member) suggests we cannot afford not to. Child care subsidies in Arizona were reduced by 36% between 2007 and 2013 and frozen three years ago when funding from the General Fund was eliminated. Over 6000 mothers who qualify are on the waiting list for subsidized child care. Why do they need subsidized care? Federal poverty monthly income level for a single mother with one child is $1319, monthly child care costs average $820. Do the arithmetic.

According to the WFSA report, for every dollar the government spends on child care there is an $11.40 return on investment “…by impacting the economic self-sufficiency of women and children over the long run.”

What kind of community do you want to live in and, even more important, want your children to live in? Should we establish policies that give a helping hand to the poor or one in which the poor are ignored and we pay the ultimate societal and financial costs.

Parents, please don’t ignore the troubling issue of poverty, support child and family-friendly policies, vote for legislators who support such policies, think carefully about policies that may save money now but cost us later. Talk about this with your friends. Talk to your children about poverty and ask them how we might solve the problem. Think about how we can build a future in which all kids get a chance to contribute to our community and country. That’s what America is all about.