Saturday, May 31, 2008

Poor Kids in A Rich Country

This is the title to a book that I have been reading on and off for several months. I cannot read it in long stretches because I grow so angry that I frequently have to set it aside and walk away from it for a while.

Rainwater, Lee, and Timothy M. Smeeding. Poor Kids in a Rich Country, America’s Children in Comparative Perspective. (2003.) Russell Sage Foundation, New York.

During my 38 years as a higher education policy analyst I have struggled to understand why this country treats children born into poor families the way we do. Maybe I could understand why we turn our backs on adults who have made persistently self-destructive choices in their lives and find themselves at the margins of life—maybe. But how we could condemn utterly innocent children to a life poisoned by inherited poverty bespeaks a degree of American extraordinary meanness that I want to deny exists.

For example since about 1980 the United States has been working relentlessly to make college more expensive and less affordable to students. Mainly this is occurring at the state level where states have slashed their state support for the public universities and colleges they created. So public institutions have been aggressively raising tuition charges to students to offset the lost state support. And since no more than 10 states have decent state need-based grant programs college is truly less affordable, but mainly to students from the bottom half of the family income distribution, below about $65,000 per year. At the federal level the focus student financial aid has shifted first from need-based grants, to cheap loans, then to subsidized loans and most recently to private market loans. The federal government now offers various tax incentives to just about everyone except families too poor to pay federal income taxes. Where we are today is about 180 degrees reversed from where we set out in 1965 in the War on Poverty. Today students from the bottom half of the family income distribution--below about $65,000 per year—face about $32 billion in unmet financial need. Since 1980 our public financing of higher education opportunity has been corrupted by political interests, profit motives, and institutional greed that have had disasterous consequences for poor college-age children.

The Rainwater/Smeeding book begins with the finding that there are poor children everywhere. Then with data compiled through the Luxembourg Income Study the authors compare the effects of government resource transfers to alleviate child poverty in the United States and 14 other rich countries: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. The many comparisons reported in the book consistently show the United States ranking dead last—often by a wide margin—in alleviating child poverty. All of the other 14 countries make greater efforts and are more successful in reducing child poverty than is the U.S. The four Scandinavian countries effectively eliminate child poverty completely. The other countries are not quite so successful, but all try harder and accomplish more than we do.

At several points in the book the authors offer their own interpretations of these data. On page 13, for example, the authors write:

"… we conclude that America has high child poverty because we choose to have it—not because we cannot do anything about it. Other nations make different choices and get different results. In contrast to the Bush administration’s rhetoric, we choose to leave a large fraction of America’s children behind and the comparative analyses we present here inform us by how much.

Anyone who cares about poor children in the United States will find this book a very difficult read. For me it helps understand the mean spirited, selfish, short-sighted choices our federal and state policy makers have made since 1980. The ugly reality about ourselves revealed by the authors through the comparison of poor child treatment sheds light on our shameful record of indifference to child poverty.


At 7:40 PM, Blogger Shelley said...

Thank you for this thoughtful review, Tom. The book goes on my "to read this summer" list.

At 2:55 PM, Blogger 2&Fro said...

It is a devastating cycle. It is so very important for kids to go onto higher education but with the outrageous pricing of colleges it is making it harder and harder for those from lower incomes. The cycle will continue on their kids and so on.

The policy makers need to be reading your work!


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