To Grow the Economy, We Must Pay Attention to Child Poverty

Every day we hear about another economic indicator, another predictor about whether the economy is up or down, in recovery or in decline. But we don't hear about a more pressing indicator of our national health: the poverty status of our children. We don't see the faces of the many children who face tougher odds on the path to adulthood because more and more of them are growing up poor.

For the fourth year in a row, child poverty is up. One in five children--including one in four young children under age 6--lived in a family earning just $60 a day. For the fourth year in a row, well-meaning politicians and thought leaders will wring their hands and bemoan the fact that children, the future of the United States, are living in substandard housing, attending failing schools, lacking books in their homes and communities, and missing out on quality early childhood experiences.

This is cause for more than passive outrage. It calls for action because if child poverty is trending up today, in a few years, other indicators will trend up as well. More children in poverty today means more teen pregnancies, more high school dropouts and more juvenile offenders tomorrow. It also means we will have more young people desperately trying to enter the workforce without college degrees or even a high school diploma.

On Friday, the Dow lost more than 300 points. In August, job creation was static. Yesterday, more than 3,000 babies were born in poverty. These are equally important and necessary economic indicators. We cannot afford to cast child poverty into a corner of public discourse tomorrow, or next week when the next big story comes out. We must pursue remedies to the very real problem of one of every four babies born going home to a family without adequate food, without a regular income and without the means to ensure that newborn's continued healthy development. We don't have time to return to politics as usual and debate whether the bang for the buck is "big enough" to invest in poverty alleviation and in our children.

These steps call for a deeper understanding of the economics of the United States. One in seven poor children had at least one household member who worked, yet those jobs don't pay enough to ensure parents can provide what their children need for healthy development. We must invest in anti-poverty programs like job creation, food supports, and quality early childhood programs because it is the right choice for our economy. We must make these investments--spend real money, that might otherwise go to deficit reduction or tax relief--because child poverty is a key indicator of the fiscal health of our nation. It is, once again, "the economy, stupid." Maybe that is how we must frame it to adequately convey the urgency.

Children live in poverty because their parents lack access to jobs and opportunity. In many communities these flat out don't exist. In others, where parents are lucky enough to find work, one job alone is not enough to keep them above the poverty line.

If we want to grow the economy and lower the debt and the deficit, we will pay attention to the rising trend in child poverty. We will follow the advice of Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, who notes that "outcomes in education, health and sociability greatly influence our nation's economic productivity and future. Achieving better outcomes in these areas will create far greater productivity and prosperity than simply cutting spending to reduce deficits."

If we want to improve our nation's future, we will invest in those things that ameliorate child poverty--quality child care and other early interventions, schools and libraries, access to food, quality jobs, and health care. If not, we will continue to wring our hands and ask why.