A Future Imperiled by Poverty and Stupidity

By Lewis Loflin

While this article is 20 years old much of what it says still holds true today except the solutions. The same failed liberal rhetoric of more "investment" fails because liberals are unrealistic - they see everything as victimization and good jobs for themselves addressing it.

The main factors behind poverty today is getting and holding a job, stay in school get a practical education, and stop having children out of wedlock. Dropping out of school and unwed motherhood are totally self-inflicted. The job market and education are tricky subjects.

Jobs are related to location and can be solved if people simply relocate. Here in Appalachia that is what people used to do, but welfare helps keep people in place when they would be better off relocating. Assistance in relocation should be considered.

Automation has eliminated many low-skill jobs and mass immigration and the presence of millions of criminal aliens has displaced millions of poor from the job market and driven down wages for others. A sizable part of the poverty problem today is immigrants and their children. We import poverty and wonder why we have more poverty?

Better paying and even menial jobs require more and better education than in the past. The education system has been wrecked by multiculturalism and the attempts at racial leveling. Science and critical thinking have been replaced by ecology and environmentalism. Reading and writing proper English is attacked as racism.

The sexual revolution and the complete breakdown of traditional moral values among the lower-classes has been a disaster. Not only is this a massive problem with low-achieving Blacks and Hispanics, but among low-class whites as well. According to the Virginia Dept. of social services the typical welfare mother is white - the vast majority of the poor in fact are white. The broken family problem transcends race.

If we want to get control of this problem all of the above policies must be reversed:

Get off race and social politics and put academics and merit back into education. This should include penalties for dropping out of school such as denial of a drivers license and barred from welfare. Those on welfare must be forced to start learning something.

Slash immigration for the next 20 years and bar anymore guest workers. People on welfare can pick strawberries as well as any Mexican. Supply some relocation assistance if needed. Start deporting as many criminal aliens as possible.

Crack down hard on unwed motherhood and stupid parents that won't control their children. This is particularly true of those on welfare with mandatory birth control. Direct intervention into dysfunctional households will get a handle on child abuse problems as well.

Deal with this drug problem. Here in Appalachia (Bristol-Tri-Cites) we have plenty of jobs while low-paying one can earn a living - but many can't pass a drug test. This drug problem makes many of the "poor" unemployable. Jails are bursting but drug treatment is unavailable in most cases.

Sometimes tough love for those that never learned responsibility is what's needed. Simply expanding the number of social workers isn't going to help. Time to end stupidity on both sides of the issue.

A Future Imperiled by Poverty

By Michael Smith-Mello and Peter Schirmer

From The Context of Change pp. 117-125, published 1994

From one fourth to nearly one half of Kentucky's children live in poverty, which, research consistently shows, can and does ruin lives.

As suggested by Professor Stephan M. Wilson, Director of the University of Kentucky's Research Center for Families and Children, children are the "common wealth" of our state and our nation, the irreplaceable resource on which the future depends.

The extent to which we provide for them, nurture them and enrich their lives will in no small measure determine our progress and prosperity in the years to come. Yet estimates of the extent of poverty among children in our state tell us that, when it comes to this essential foundation for the future, we are failing. Instead, all of the considerable, well-intended work that has been done to mediate the pain and discomfort of poverty in Kentucky has not loosened its stranglehold on the children who are the future of this state.

Today, families are under extraordinary stress that is being felt in the everyday lives of children from every economic strata, but far more acutely in the lives of those who are poor.

A growing number of children are absorbing the shock of family disruption and settling into households headed by single parents, who, Harvard Professor Lisbeth Schorr suggests in Within Our Reach, are often "too drained to provide the consistent nurturance, structure and stimulation that prepares other children for school and for life (Schorr)." In disproportionate numbers, they are also too poor to meet their children's needs.

Structural economic and family changes have combined to push one in five U.S. children into what the U.S. Bureau of Census defines as poverty. Some social science researchers believe it is outdated and inaccurate, and grossly underestimates the real scope of the problem. By current federal estimates, the line of poverty is presently drawn at a monthly income of $932 for a single mother with two children and at $1,195 for a family of four.

The Kentucky Kids Count Consortium, however, estimates that families actually need incomes double the federal poverty threshold in order to meet basic housing, clothing, health care, food and transportation needs. Thus, many families have one or more adults who work full-time but still struggle; they are the working poor.

Even by official definitions, one in four Kentucky children is poor. In 22 rural Kentucky counties, 40 percent or more of children live in official poverty. The Kentucky Kids Count Consortium, which includes state university researchers and child advocates, estimates that nearly one-half (48 percent) of children in the state are members of families who are unable to provide a minimal standard of living.

The alarm poverty raises is not new to the public policy dialogue in Kentucky. In the mid-1940s the Committee for Kentucky expressed concern about poverty's implications for the state's future. Forty years later in 1986, the Kentucky Tomorrow Commission echoed those same concerns, urging investment in programs to alleviate the causes and consequences of poverty.

As we near the end of this century, poverty has not been defeated or diminished. Instead, it has tightened its stranglehold on Kentucky families and expanded its geographic reach. Once regarded as largely an Appalachian problem, poverty became a way of life for more and more western Kentucky families during the 1980s.

For example, the number of children living in poor families nearly doubled in Caldwell County while it increased 53 percent in Marshall County, 37 percent in Daviess County, and 26 percent in McCracken County. Inner-city neighborhoods in Lexington and Louisville were similarly affected by the decade-long growth of child poverty.

Today, the body of research into poverty has begun to expand in proportion to the magnitude of the problem and complement long-established documentation of the relationship between childhood poverty and a range of potentially devastating adult outcomes. The circumstances of life in poverty, researchers consistently conclude, adversely affect the health and the educational attainment of children reared under its mantle and, in turn, the productivity and independence of their adult lives.

While researchers are beginning to isolate the factors that enable children from some poor families to escape its mean cycles, it is almost universally agreed that poverty is not benign. "We will all suffer because of children in poverty," observes Dr. Wilson. In short, deepening child poverty does not bode well for the future of our state and our nation.

The long-range public interest, more and more researchers assert, will be served by policies and programs that alleviate the effects of poverty and prevent its root causes. Broad-based investment in comprehensive initiatives that have yielded proven results is being urged from a number of fronts.

"The national stake in getting services to families most in need is now so large, and the potential for effective help so great, that interventions especially designed for the families hardest to help justify massive new public commitment," Harvard's Professor Schorr has urged.

The singular advantage policymakers enjoy today, 30 years after President Lyndon Johnson's symbolic launching of the War on Poverty in Inez, Kentucky, is knowledge. While it may seem now that the war is lost, as more and more human territory has been ceded, many strategies for mediating the damaging consequences of poverty have proven and will continue to prove their worth to public investors. They offer a path to policymakers who are confronted with the need to invest in prevention at a time when the cost of failure is consuming bigger pieces of state budget pies.

Stagnant wages and a rising number of single-parent households, usually headed by women, have extended poverty's reach.

The underlying causes of poverty among families with children are both economic and structural. As family households have divided, so too have resources. Too often, children are the economic losers, but even two-parent families have suffered economic setbacks in recent years. The average family's take-home pay (inflation-adjusted wages) has not kept pace with inflation since 1974, and an estimated 6.6 million U.S. workers live in families who are poor.

The plight of young U.S. families with children, those headed by persons younger than 30, has worsened dramatically, according to a 1992 report by the Children's Defense Fund (CDF).

Between 1943 and 1990, CDF found the median income (adjusted for inflation) of young families was reduced by nearly one-third -- 32 percent -- while it rose 11 percent among families without children. At the same time, the poverty rate for children in young families doubled, from 20 percent in 1943 to 40 percent in 1990.

In Kentucky, the overall picture is made worse by a median family income that lags far behind that for the nation as a whole. As illustrated, while the median family income in the United States is now $35,225 a year, it is more than $8,000 a year lower for Kentucky families ($27,028), a gap that widened from 83 percent of the national median income in 1980 to 77 percent in 1990.

Lower incomes, increasingly reliant on transfer payments from government assistance programs, are a significant reason for the expanse of poverty in the state. As Dr. Hansen observes, "Many young parents have difficulty finding decent-paying jobs. There are fewer high-wage manufacturing and mining jobs and more low-paying service and retail jobs today."

While two-parent families struggle to make it on declining wages, children who live in single-parent households are six times as likely to be poor, largely because most live in households headed by women who earn less, receive little or no support from the absent parent, or receive too little public assistance to escape poverty. In Kentucky, public assistance clearly does not permit recipients to escape poverty. In 1990, the maximum AFDC monthly payment to a family of four was 34 percent lower than the national average, $285 in contrast to $432.

As illustrated, the disparity persisted throughout the 1980s. AFDC benefits in Kentucky meet only 73 percent of the need poor families experience, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates. In spite of the need evidenced in expanding rolls, up by nearly 17,465 families from 1981 to 1993, the state's inflation-adjusted funding for AFDC has risen only slightly in the 1990s.

Underlying the changing economic circumstances of families with children are persistent racial and gender inequities in pay and employment opportunities that are sharply felt by single women, as well as by two-parent families. In its annual report on poverty, the Census Bureau reported in 1991 that, regardless of educational achievement, more women lived in poverty. Among those women without a high school diploma, for example, 30.7 percent were poor as compared to 19 percent of men with the same educational background.

A 1991 report for the Workforce Development Cabinet found that, regardless of age or years of education, women in Kentucky continue to earn substantially less than men, 62.7 cents on average for each dollar earned by men. Census data, however, suggest that this figure may actually underestimate the disparity.

As illustrated, data on educational attainment reveal a dramatic difference in the earnings of men and women in Kentucky that, contrary to usual assumptions, widens with educational achievement. And while women have made dramatic gains in labor force participation in the state, from 36 percent in 1970 to the present 54 percent, their rate of participation trails the national rate of 58 percent.

Among black families, the rising number of single-parent households has exaggerated long-standing inequities. More than half of black families with children (53 percent) in Kentucky are now headed by single women in comparison to 16.6 percent of white families. In turn, nearly half of all black children in the state (47 percent) live in households that fall below the federal poverty threshold. In the state's most populous counties, Jefferson and Fayette, the percentage of black children who live in poverty is four times greater than that among white children.

Compounding the economic woes of families headed by women of all colors is a significant national deficit in child support from absent fathers -- approximately $5 billion in 1989, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that more than half of women in the United States who have children by fathers no longer in the home do not receive child support, either because there is no support award in place or the support awarded is not being paid.

Among those women who have secured a child support award, an estimated 49 percent receive less than the full award or no support at all. And, according to a 1992 U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee report, women who are not poor are almost twice as likely to receive child support or alimony as women who are poor (46 percent compared to 27 percent).

Teenage childbearing also continues to play a well-documented role in the perpetuation of poverty. Unmarried, teenage mothers are at the highest risk of remaining impoverished and dependent upon welfare. As Schorr notes, more than half of total AFDC budgets go to families headed by women who were teenagers when they had their first child, and 71 percent of all AFDC mothers under the age of 30 began childbearing as teenagers. A 1989 study of the characteristics of AFDC recipients in Kentucky found that while only 5 percent of those surveyed had received welfare as a child, 50 percent had given birth to their first child before reaching the age of 19.

As illustrated, births to women under the age of 20 in Kentucky have declined steadily in recent years, according to the Children's Defense Fund, from 18.3 percent of all births in 1984 to 17.5 percent in 1989. They nevertheless represent a significant problem, particularly in light of the documented consequences of teenage childbearing and the significant portion of out-of-wedlock births to teen mothers (36.5 percent in 1991). Additionally, Professor Gary Hansen has found that Kentucky counties with high child poverty rates have 33 percent higher rates of births to teens, ages 12 to 17.

Poverty's Enduring Legacy

Research suggests the persistence of poverty in Kentucky is the product of mean cycles that trap children in the same limiting and debilitating circumstances their parents experienced.

Beyond the immediate humanitarian alarms sounded by deepening poverty in Kentucky are a significant number of long-term outcomes that could influence our social and economic future for decades to come.

The long-term implications are disturbing enough to render the contentious debate surrounding family values insignificant. What is almost certain to be significant, however, are the costly consequences of rearing more and more children in poverty. Researchers have empirically demonstrated what common sense would lead most to conclude about poverty: It often ruins lives.

Researchers have consistently tied impoverished environments and their consequences for physical and emotional health to low educational achievement and subsequent patterns of unemployment and underemployment.

Often, they have found, the costly consequences of poverty cross generations, as children become entrapped by the same debilitating social and physical circumstances their parents experienced. The enduring cycles of poverty in Kentucky are testament to these findings.

The web of entrapment poverty weaves begins with the absence of proper pre-natal and peri-natal care, which increases the risk of disability and death. As illustrated, both Kentucky and the nation have experienced a gradual decline in infant mortality rates that have been in relatively close alignment.

But, while infant mortality has declined both here in Kentucky and nationally, part of the decline has been attributed to technological advances in neonatal care, rather than expanded pre-natal care, including prevention and education. In spite of progress, infant mortality in the United States ranks 19th among industrialized nations, according to the United Nations.

Health and well-being are also more elusive in the lives of poor children. Nationally, public health researchers find that accidental and disease related deaths are three to four times greater among children who live in circumstances of poverty, which often include substandard housing, inadequate clothing, poor nutrition and the absence of preventive health care (Baumeister et al.).

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, twice as many children under the age of 18 who experience limitations in major activities (work, housekeeping or school activities) are from families with annual incomes below $10,000 when compared to children from families with annual incomes of $35,000 or more.

In 1986, the Children's Defense Fund estimated that poor children were as much as two times more likely than children living outside of poverty to have one or more disabilities, which come at an inestimable cost to society.

When poor children enter Kentucky schools, research suggests they are less likely to be ready to learn than their more affluent peers and more likely to be adversely affected by negative attitudes and practices that constrain their achievement.

The Children's Defense Fund reported in a 1986 study that poor children tend to lack the basic skills more affluent children possess and to score lower on achievement tests. The expanding number of children in poverty also may contribute to a dramatic rise in learning disabled children.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, comprised a portion of enrollees in public school programs that grew 103 percent from 1977 to 1987 (Baumeister et al.). In his analysis of 1990 Census data, Dr. Hansen found that among Kentucky counties with the highest child poverty rates, high school graduation rates are 10 percent lower than in counties with lower child poverty rates.

If acute disadvantage persists in the lives of so many Kentucky children, the promise of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) may be muted. Research, however, has clearly established the predictors of failure and, hence, points of intervention. "School failure and poor reading performance as early as third grade, truancy, poor achievement.

Misbehavior in elementary school, and the failure to master school skills throughout schooling are among the most reliable predictors of early childbearing, delinquency, and dropping out of school, " observes Schorr. Schools, researchers now conclude, indeed can help change children's lives. Teachers have been identified as potential role models and sources of support who can contribute to the resiliency of poor children and enable their escape from poverty.

For some children, there may be no escape from the sting of poverty. Through the ubiquitous presence of television, poor children are made acutely aware of the poverty in which they live.

That knowledge alone compounds the sense of alienation and isolation that some researchers believe presents the most formidable obstacle to escape from poverty. Beyond the stigma of impoverishment in a culture that defines achievement largely in terms of acquisitions, research suggests that emotional scars are also more likely to mar the lives of poor children.

In spite of a bias that leads to over-reporting of abuse among poor families, they have an elevated risk of using violence toward their children. According to the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, more than 90 percent of incidents of abuse or neglect occur in families who live below the median income while between 40 percent and 50 percent of incidents occur within the 15 percent of American families who live below the poverty level (Center for Law and Social Policy).

In Kentucky counties with high rates of poverty, Professor Hansen finds that reports of child abuse are 11 percent higher and substantiated abuse is 9 percent higher.

Because poverty weakens parenting skills, which are already under significant stress in households headed by single parents, the psychological well-being of poor children may be jeopardized. Among its most appalling effects, observe Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker in Thinking for a Living, is the way in which it deprives many of its youthful victims "of a belief in themselves, in the capacity to succeed, no matter what they do." Marshall and Tucker argue that the absence of this belief in an upward link to a better life isolates many American children and their families from hope that must be provided through comprehensive investment in education and training.

Future Implications

We know where poor families with children are most in need of our help, how to help them, and what it will cost us if we do nothing.

In Kentucky, our prospects for the future may rest on how quickly and how successfully we adapt to the change that is certain to be a constant in the lives of families. One of the changes that portends future problems is deepening poverty among families with children. In spite of the constraints of limited federal and state resources, social policy researchers suggest that programs aimed at families, particularly families in poverty, should be broadly expanded in the long-term interest of society.

Part of adapting, suggests Professor Wilson, is elevating the public dialogue from sensationalistic and inaccurate media accounts of family failure that further undermine an already strained family and community fabric. Wilson recommends a more factual assessment of family life in America and a renewed, creative focus on what works rather than what fails. He believes failure-oriented research and media doomsaying belie the resiliency and strength of families.

The challenge to state policymakers, Wilson suggests, is to recapture the middle ground, to develop policies and programs that reflect knowledge about families and family services, much of which is available to them at state universities. And, he adds, we must become far more diligent in our efforts to measure outcomes and identify "best practices" that provide a return on public investment.

"When we deliver inter-generational services, reach children by reaching their parents, the effects persist over time," observes Wilson. "The more we can look at programs to reinforce and empower families to do for themselves, the more successful we and they will be."

Successful models have demonstrated that providing more for families in need during a time of declining resources, requires a radical philosophical shift to a more flexible, less bureaucratic, preventive mode of service. Outcomes, suggests Mark Friedman, a senior associate with the Washington, D.C.-based research group, the Center for the Study of Social Policy, are emerging as a driving force behind budget strategies and priorities. States and state agencies are identifying programmatic and larger societal goals to meet through public investment and measuring their progress toward those goals.

To help achieve outcomes such as reducing welfare dependency and lifting more children out of poverty, Friedman suggests state policymakers can find dollars to finance proven family programs from untapped federal sources and by carving pieces out of "failure-oriented" budgets and dedicating them to prevention. As need escalates, talk of using human service bonds to finance critical investments in the future is also emerging.

An example of an alternative approach to family services is seen in Michigan's Families First Program, which spends up to $500 per family to provide help when it is needed and relieve stress caused by inadequate resources. Front-line social workers are given the flexibility and the authority to spend whatever necessary to empower families, to help them regain equilibrium and move out of crisis.

Similarly, Iowa is advancing promising welfare reforms that join social workers with recipients to develop individualized, long-range plans for independence. Likewise, Hawaii is enabling escape from poverty by providing universal access to affordable, preventive health care.

Here at home, the inter-generational services of Louisville's Family Literacy Program and the Family Resource Centers that are part of KERA are promising programs designed to preserve and strengthen the family unit. In order to ensure the continued effectiveness of these and other programs, it is essential that we measure their real impact on the lives of families.

The recommended long-term strategy which has emerged from a number of fronts is that of identifying high risk groups and investing in intensive help. Those at highest risk, according to Professor Schorr, are children growing up in persistent poverty, in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, in homeless families, with a mentally ill, alcoholic, drug-addicted or isolated parent. Professor Hansen has identified those Kentucky counties where concentrated services are most needed.

In these counties, he observes, "Poor children are likely to live in multi-problem families. Plagued by poverty, disorganization and stress, many of their families lack the emotional and material resources to meet children's needs. Often they also lack access to outside help to make up the difference." It is precisely such help family researchers insist must be bolstered and expanded.

Schorr argues convincingly that we know where poor families with children are most in need of our help, how to help them and what it will cost if we do nothing. In Kentucky, it will cost our "common wealth" a future of promise, prosperity and progress. If we remain indifferent to the growing needs of Kentucky's poor families with children, we will help ensure the perpetuation of poverty of unacceptable breadth, as well as the deprivation, the mediocrity, the pain and the costly consequences that attend it.