The Anti-Economist — From the October 2013 issue

Problem Number One

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This spring, Newark mayor Cory Booker, then considering a run for U.S. Senate, came to my office along with members of his staff to discuss national economic issues. We spent a couple of hours batting around such familiar topics as deficit spending, public investment, and Wall Street’s role in creating or suppressing job growth. But I also used the opportunity to move beyond these subjects to what I think is the most critical problem in America today: child poverty.

It’s a problem largely absent from our political debate. When candidate Romney, with embarrassing honesty, admitted that he wasn’t “concerned about the very poor,” he was simply expressing the common assumption that social safety nets effectively address the problem of poverty and that politicians ought therefore to concentrate on the middle class. Though President Obama is far too savvy to use such language, he appears to share this assumption: in his July speech outlining his second-term economic agenda, he talked about wages, infrastructure, and education, but there was not a word about child poverty. The current economic talking point  — building the economy from the “middle out”  — is the most recent effort to skirt the issue of poverty and frame Democratic programs in middle-class terms. (It should be noted that Obama’s original stimulus package did in fact direct more money to the poor, but such programs don’t seem to get much political traction.)

The truth is that more than one in five U.S. children live below the poverty line, which puts the United States at the bottom of the pack among wealthy nations. Close to half of those poor children live in extreme poverty  — with parental incomes of less than half the poverty rate. Some 13 percent of children are born into poverty, and for them it is likely to persist: most remain poor for at least half their childhood.

Researchers have found that stress in infants and toddlers does measurable damage to memory and I.Q. What investigators now call “toxic stress” can permanently change the structure of the brain, according to reports by the American Academy of Pediatricians. As one study puts it:

The active ingredients that are necessary to construct a strong architecture of brain circuitry are abundant, safe opportunities to learn and active, reciprocal relationships with adults.

These are too often missing in the lives of poor children. Nutritional inadequacy and exposure to violence are common; poor children are likelier to wind up in hospitals because of physical abuse and nutritional neglect. Economists insist that investment in education is the key to reducing inequality and raising opportunities for all. But how can a child deprived of adequate nutrition, emotional support, and normal early cognitive development take advantage of universal pre-K education?

Those born to poor parents are significantly less likely to finish high school, to attend college, or to complete a degree. Childhood poverty is also closely related to a higher frequency of teen parenthood, and children born to young parents are likely to fall into the same damaging cycle.

“Dramatically reducing child poverty, especially in the first five years of life, will not solve all of America’s problems,” says Lawrence Aber, a developmental psychologist and the former director of the National Center for Children in Poverty. “But it will make a large number of very tough problems  — childhood obesity, academic underperformance, and too-early births to single parents  — much easier to solve.”

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