May 6, 2003
Child poverty is at shameful, epidemic levels in the United States, especially for black and Latino kids.
The Children's Defense Fund recently released a study that revealed that the number of black children under 18 in extreme poverty was at a record high. The organization, using current U.S. Census figures, found that the number is the highest it has been in the 23 years since the statistics have been kept.
"Extreme poverty" is defined as a family whose after-tax income is less than half of what the federal government defines as the poverty line. In this study, the "extreme poverty" line for a family of three was a mere $7,064 of disposable income.
Although the study also showed that overall poverty is down in this country, that is not the case for extreme poverty of black, Latino and white children. There were nearly 932,000 black children in extreme poverty in 2001, the latest year the statistics are available. That is up 50 percent from 622,000 in 1999. Latino children in extreme poverty numbered at 733,000, an increase of 13 percent from 1999. And white children in the same group numbered at 1.8 million, up 2 percent since 1999.
We may like to think that poverty is something that exists only in some so-called Third World country. But these statistics should force us to focus on extreme poverty right here in the United States. Too many of us are ignorant of, or indifferent to, the plight of poor and minority kids.
As Congress debates proposed tax cuts and whether to renew the 1996 welfare legislation -- including cuts of Head Start programs and child health programs -- policy-makers should consider the study carefully before enacting laws that could have detrimental consequences on the well-being of millions of children.
The startling figures should force us all to take action. We can no longer afford to sit idly by as large tax cuts for the wealthy few supersede the day-to-day needs of those in extreme poverty.
Congress should increase the childcare supplements, and the welfare reauthorization bill should specifically direct more money to job training. Additionally, states should offer wage supplements to women in minimum-wage jobs. Filling these holes in the "welfare-to-work safety net" would benefit parents as well as to their children.
In the richest nation in the world, we should not measure our success in economic wealth, but in the social condition of our downtrodden -- especially our children.
Akilah Monifa is a free-lance writer living in Oakland, Calif.