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The Skanner

January 28, 2013

Poverty: Obama's Speech was Inspirational but Unrealistic

Children born poor are caught in a vicious cycle -- especially children of color

By Helen Silvis

Young people at the PAL youth center in East Portland. Some of the youth who attend the center come from families struggling to put food on the table and stay housed When President Obama gave his second inauguration address Monday, America's yawning wealth gap was at the center of his speech.

"For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it," the president said. "We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own."

Inspiring? No question. Realistic? Not so much.

According to poverty researchers, America won't end poverty unless federal and state governments make a deliberate decision to create policies targeted to do so.

Poverty: A Lasting legacy

Research by Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan for the Urban Institute, a national think tank, shows that little girls –and boys – born into poverty do not have the same chance to succeed as anybody else. Being born poor has deep and long-lasting effects.

"Children who start out life poor are more likely to stay in those circumstances," Ratcliffe told The Skanner News. "And particularly if they are minorities, they are more likely to stay persistently poor.

"Just by knowing what their circumstance is in that first year of life, it tells us they are vulnerable to long spells of poverty and they are also vulnerable for these negative adult outcomes: having teen pre-marital birth; not graduating from high school; and having patchy employment as an adult."

Ratcliffe says the cycle of poverty, school dropout and teen parenthood can continue over generations if families don't get help.

Family Stress Harms Children

When mothers and fathers are stressed by their struggles with poverty, children suffer too. Toxic stress slows brain development, perhaps even before birth.

"We are learning more about that over time," Ratcliffe says. "… children don't have the power to change things, but they can absorb and be impacted by the stress in the family: the up and down changes in income, and ability to pay bills; and to be living more on the edge; and also the impact on kids of changing schools. The stresses can have a ripple effect on their success in the future."

Moving for negative reasons, such as economic hardship or family breakup, was also associated with being less likely to graduate from high school, the study found. That finding echoes the 2009 report by Eco Northwest for the Black Parent Initiative that looked at the reasons for low graduation rates among Portland's African American students. The report found Black students were far more likely than others to change schools.

Ratcliffe says she'd like to see school districts agree to retain students, whenever possible, even when they move out of district.

Anti-Poverty Programs Help

After analyzing 40 years of data on poverty, Ratcliffe found that the only way to lift substantial numbers of people out of poverty is to identify and help poor families as early as possible.

She points to resources, such as: the Women's Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program; childcare subsidies; transportation assistance; and expanded paid leave policies. They help keep families stable and support working parents, she says.

"It really is about early investment in children and families and that if we don't invest early we have costs later on down the road: we have kids who are not being productive in the labor market; there is incarceration. So I think it is better to put our resources in early to invest in these children rather than to assume the costs later."

Four out of Every 10 Black Babies are Born into Poverty

Nationally the statistics show that 5 in every 100 White children live in poverty for at least half their childhood. But for Black children that figure rises to 40 of every 100 children. What's more the problem seems to be growing, not shrinking.

When Dr. Martin Luther King launched his "War on Poverty", he talked about the plight of 40 million people. Today official poverty estimates count almost 50 million Americans in poverty. And while it is true that the population has also grown, experts say the official poverty level doesn't measure real economic need in 2013.

"It's well understood by policy experts that the official definition of poverty is out of date and it undercounts real economic need," says Juan Carlos Ordóñez, of the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

Oregon's Blacks, Latinos and Pacific Islanders are Twice as Likely to Be Poor

The center issued a fact sheet for Martin Luther King Day, showing that poverty in Oregon is persistent, and disproportionately affects Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders. Poverty among White Oregonians is almost 15 percent, but for Blacks, Native Americans and Latinos it is almost 30 percent. And for Oregon's Pacific islanders it is 36 percent.

Why so?

"Clearly there are historical reasons why certain communities have higher levels of poverty," Ordonez says. "We haven't overcome centuries of history. But in recent decades we have underinvested in the public structures that create economic opportunity. An obvious example is education. We're not investing what we should in our K-12 education, and the costs of going to college are going up.

"So it is structural. We have underinvested in schools and other assistances."

Do Anti-Poverty Programs Feed Dependence?

What about the oft-heard argument that generations of entitlements have kept poor people from making progress?

Pure fiction, Ordonez says. Cuts to cash aid programs, such as TANF, combined with cuts to public education, childcare assistance and a host of other programs that helped stabilize families have done nothing to reduce poverty, he says.

"The sense that somehow we are spending too much to address poverty is just quite wrong. It is in fact, the contrary."

"It is clear that at both the state level and at the national level, we need a plan to address poverty and to address income inequality. Doing that would go a long way in addressing racial inequity and economic inequality, given that communities of color are disproportionately represented among the poor and the incomes of those communities lag behind that of whites. So a plan to address poverty and income inequality benefits all Oregonians and all Americans, but especially racial and ethnic minorities."

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