by Julie Vogtman, Counsel,
National Women's Law Center

In Congress, some Members justify their opposition to extending unemployment benefits and other steps to aid families and states in crisis on the grounds that such spending will burden our children with a greater deficit. But failure to make these investments will effectively increase an already severe deficit in human potential that is sure to have lasting repercussions. We need to do more, not less, to end the cruel—and costly—cycle of poverty.

The Urban Institute just released a new report on "Child Poverty Persistence: Facts and Consequences." Its conclusions are sobering:

  • 37 percent of children live in poverty at some point prior to adulthood. 
  • Black children are far more likely than white children to experience poverty; while 70 percent of white children are never poor, only 23 percent of black children escape poverty altogether. 37 percent of black children are persistently poor (i.e., poor for 9 to 18 years), compared with only 5 percent of white children.
  • 13 percent of all children, 8 percent of white children, and 40 percent of black children are born into poverty. 31 percent of white children and 69 percent of black children who are born poor go on to spend at least half their childhoods living in poverty, and 21 percent of children born into poverty spend at least half their early adult years (ages 25 to 30) living in poverty.
  • Children born poor are three times more likely to fail to complete high school than those not poor at birth. 
  • 36 percent of black men who are poor at birth are consistently employed as early adults—33 percentage points lower than the corresponding figure for black men not born into poverty (69 percent). Only 34 percent of all men who were persistently poor as children are consistently employed as young adults. Women who were poor for at least half their childhoods are only about half as likely to attain consistent employment as their counterparts who never experienced poverty as children.
  •  32 percent of persistently poor children go on to spend their early adult years living in poverty.  Only 1 percent of children who are never poor experience poverty in early adulthood.

These findings make clear that the cost of failing to address poverty is exorbitantly high. Indeed, a 2007 study estimates that the cumulative costs to the U.S. economy of childhood poverty—from lost productivity and earnings, as well as the costs associated with higher crime and poorer health in later years—are about $500 billion per year (approximately 4 percent of GDP). 

And these costs are likely to increase dramatically in the current economic climate. In 2008, 19 percent of children were poor nationwide. This figure is much higher in some states (e.g., 30 percent in Mississippi; 25 percent in Arkansas and Louisiana), as well as for children in female-headed families (37.2 percent) and minorities (34.7 percent for black children, 30.6 percent for Hispanic children, and 37.0 percent for Native American children). 

As a result of the ongoing recession, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that the national poverty rate for children will increase by 8.6 percentage points between 2007 and 2010, reaching 26.6 percent by 2010. EPI's projection for poverty among single mothers with children is even bleaker: 46.4 percent in 2010. We hope that this afternoon, the Senate will break the filibuster of the unemployment insurance (UI) benefits extension and take an important (and overdue) step to help some of these struggling families. Then Congress needs to extend the TANF Emergency Fund and enhanced federal matching funds for Medicaid to create jobs and protect critical services. 

If Congress is truly concerned about controlling the deficit, it should reject costly tax cuts and invest in a better future for the children who need it most. 

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