The Hidden Force Behind Child Poverty Rates In The U.S.

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In this 2015 photo, two children rest on a hammock at a homeless encampment in the Kakaako district of Honolulu. Homelessness in Hawaii has grown in recent years, leaving the state with 487 homeless per 100,000 people, the nation's highest rate per capita, according to federal statistics. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
In this 2015 photo, two children rest on a hammock at a homeless encampment in the Kakaako district of Honolulu. Homelessness in Hawaii has grown in recent years, leaving the state with 487 homeless per 100,000 people, the nation's highest rate per capita, according to federal statistics. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Democratic presidential candidates are raising awareness about the issue of poverty in the United States with a specific focus on how to help impacted children.

Almost 39 million Americans are living in poverty, and 17% of children in the U.S. are impoverished. The number of kids living below the poverty line has fluctuated around the same level since 1969, according to the Pew Research Center.

The problem of poverty in the U.S. is systemic — generation after generation of people who are born into poverty remain stuck in the cycle, says Nisha Patel, managing director of narrative change and national initiatives for Robin Hood, a New York City-based nonprofit focused on fighting poverty.

“One of our U.S. partnership members put it best when he said, 'Today, when it comes to poverty in the United States, zip code matters more than genetic code,' ” Patel says. “So where we are born and where we grow up can have a huge impact on future outcomes.”

In the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty and unleashed funding to spur economic growth in poor communities. Patel says we need that kind of government intervention again because there are market failures when people are working very hard but can’t break out of the cycle of poverty.

“One of the best things we can do to help families with young children and young children themselves move out of poverty is to increase the income to their families,” she says. “I always say that if you care about children, you've got to care about their parents. And we've got good research that shows that an infusion of increased income in the range of $3,000 a year when children are young can actually have a pretty big impact on their later workforce earnings as adults.”

Interview Highlights 

On how where children are born impacts their chances of breaking out of poverty

“For children who are born into poverty, so the bottom 20% of income based on where they were born, by when they got to be adults, what were their chances of moving out and up to the top? And if you can imagine a map of the United States, you see vast differences for a child, for example, born in the Mississippi Delta into poverty versus a child ... born in Silicon Valley, in the San Jose area. Even in places where you see significant job growth, that doesn't necessarily automatically mean that there are great opportunities for everyone or that opportunity is equally distributed in those communities.”

On how gender, race and immigration status affect poverty levels 

“We looked very specifically, and you could look at it in a number of ways, we looked specifically at wages. Sometimes there are these inaccurate notions that if people are living in poverty, it's because somehow they're not working. And what we found is that, in fact, is not the case. And so we looked at data around who is working in low-wage jobs, and we used $12.50 an hour or less. And what we found first when we looked at gender was that when we look at white men, only about 20% of white men are working in low-wage jobs, and that number is much greater for women.

“And then we said, ‘Well, what if we then, you know, it's important to look at the intersection of issues. So what if we crossed gender with race?’ … 40% of black women are working in low wage jobs and then 46% of Latino or Hispanic women. And then we said, ‘OK, it's really important to look at immigration status as well.’ More than 60% of Hispanic women, women who are noncitizens, and that includes women who are legal permanent residents, 60% are working in low wage jobs. So that's triple the percentage of white men.”

On working with impoverished communities as part of her research

“I think it was one of the most powerful things that we did. And I felt so strongly about it because I've had the good fortune to sit in a lot of privileged positions in government and philanthropy, and one of the things I have realized and have really spent my career trying to combat is this idea that ... people living in poverty themselves are rarely at those tables when decisions are made. It's one of the reasons I felt so strongly we had to spend time in communities actually breaking bread, speaking with people who were experiencing poverty.

“So, for example, you mentioned we went to Silicon Valley and we went there because it is one of the communities historically for children who are born into poverty, where they have the best fighting chance of getting out. So we wanted to say, 'Well, what's going on there? What's the context? And is that still true today? It's true historically. Is it true today?' And so we were having a conversation, breaking bread, having lunch with some parents, primarily women in the Mayfair community in east San Jose. This is the neighborhood where Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez began their organizing. We kept talking about over lunch this idea of being in Silicon Valley. And we're having this conversation in simultaneous Spanish-English interpretation so that everyone could participate in their own language, in their own voice. And one of the women stopped us, and she said in Spanish, 'What is this word you keep using? What is Silicon Valley?’

“She lived in the heart of Silicon Valley, and you could hear a pin drop because I think it struck many of the folks in our group, particularly the academic scholars, how sort of, I think, illustrative that is of both the cultural and economic divide that exists. These are families living within 30 minutes of the largest tech companies on the planet, yet never the twain shall meet.”

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on October 28, 2019.

Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



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