Growing Poorly

Lives on the Lineby Martha Shirk, Neil G. Bennett, and J. Lawrence AberWestview Press. 304p $24

Lives on the Line is a powerful account of what low-income Americans endure in their struggle to raise children in surroundings of poverty. The detailed descriptions of these "lives"profiles of 10 families of diverse racial and geographical backgroundsare placed in meaningful context by the final section on the demographics of child poverty. This concluding portion, and indeed the book as a whole, was written under the aegis of the highly respected National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University. The demographic analysis at the end serves as the bone structure, so to speak, for the preceding profiles that give to the overall picture its human face. Together they present what should be a shocking realitynamely, that here in the world’s richest nation, we have the highest young child poverty rate in the Western industrialized world.

For all their diversity, in reading though the stories of the 10 families, the reader gradually begins to see a pattern emerge. The pattern entails three major, intertwined risk factors. The first is single parenthood. In most of the families profiled, the mother bore her first child while still a teenager in school. The authors point out that the young child poverty rate for the children of teenaged mothers is close to 50 percent, whereas for children born to adult mothers the poverty rate is far less: 21 percent. The impact in terms of lost educational opportunities is great, and in fact low educational achievement is the second risk factor. In half the families studied, neither parent finished high school; again, the child poverty rate rises as a result. As one mother of five understood in looking back with hindsight wisdom, "Education is the key to everything." The third risk factor concerns the kinds of low-wage and temporary employment that, because of their lack of education, are the most that the parents in the profiles can hope for. Simply to put food on the table and keep the rent paid up, moreover, some must work longer hours or take second jobs. under such adverse circumstances, parent-child bonding inevitably suffers.

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A frequent corollary to the three risk factors is the high incidence of domestic violence. The mothers in these stories often endured physical violence at the hands of their children’s fathers. A California woman of Mexican descent said that she never expected her husband "to beat me and kick me and call me bad words." For her and others, there was no recourse except to flee and try to support the children single-handedly. When obliged to witness the violence to their mothers, the children themselves are struck a blow in terms of their psychosocial development.

To a greater or lesser extent, the 10 families depended on government programs like Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing and subsidized childcare. But in a catch-22 situation, if family income rose from the various jobs one or both parents held, eligibility for the programs could be jeopardized. In a not-atypical case, the mother lost Medicaid for an older child because her monthly earnings were a few dollars over the established limit. Nor did she realize that because of their age, two younger children were still eligible, and therefore she never applied for them. Misunderstandings about Medicaid eligibility are by no means uncommon throughout the country; the authors cite a U.S. Government Accounting Office study which found that one-third of uninsured children in 1994 qualified for Medicaid but did not receive it because the parents were unaware of their eligibility. Clearly, far better informational outreach is called for.

The loss of benefits on the basis of increased family earnings represents what the authors call "the cliff." As they point out, "the benefits cliff is a...confusing aspect of the struggle that low-income families face in making ends meet." By extension, it could be argued that when federal and state governments cut off Medicaid and other supports before families have gained a steady foothold on the way to financial independence, they are in a sense penalizing them for progress already made but as yet insufficientalmost a form of pushing them off the cliff before they are ready to fly. Our welfare system has played a part in this shortsighted approach because it "has actually discouraged savings, asking people to spend down their assets before they are eligible for certain benefits"though the authors do note that some state governments are taking steps to alter this disincentive to save.

Frequently, too, as with the mother who did not realize her two youngest children were eligible for Medicaid, ignorance not just of eligibility but even of what beneficial programs exist, can hold families back. Apart from those already mentioned, one of the most important for poor working families is the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which was begun in 1975. By reducing the tax burden, it supplements the income of low-wage earners with children and thereby helps to lift the family above the poverty line. But in one of the profiles, a mother who finally began to benefit from E.I.T.C. only belatedly realized she could have received the supplement years earlier. Again, where is the needed informational outreach for people like her? The authors refer to E.I.T.C. several times during the course of the book, andalong with an increase in the minimum wageurge its expansion.

Although the 10 profiles are characterized by numerous sad elements, ranging from evictions and family breakups to drug addiction and chronic illnesses, taken as a whole these are not sad stories. That they are not is due to the sheer toughness of the parents who tell them, a determination to survive against odds that could seem at times all but insuperable. As one St. Louis woman, a mother of six, put it: "I can’t let being poor affect my outlook on life." And it doesn’t. At times the toughness goes hand in hand with a remarkable generosity. Despite mounting debts, another woman provided free temporary childcare for two children whose parentin this case, a single fatherwas beginning a new job. "He told me he couldn’t pay me, and I said, That’s okay. I’m home with my own kids anyway. What’s a few more?’" Such a comment is reminiscent of the outlook of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, always willing to share the family’s scant food resources with children hungrier than her own at migrant encampments along the way from Oklahoma to California.

What is sad, however, is the comparative negligence of our leadershipboth federal and statewhen it comes to ridding the nation of one of its major blights, the perdurance of young child poverty. In an appendix that cites figures for "Extreme-Poverty Rates of Children Under Six, by State, 1993-1997," the nation’s capital and the seat of our government, Washington, D.C., is listedalong with Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippias having the highest rate in this category. What a commentary on our indifference! In its concluding pages, the authors point out that some countries provide a flat child allowance, "to recognize the parent’s economic sacrifice in raising the next generation and to enhance the ability of child-rearing families to make ends meet." Given our extraordinary wealth, we should be among those countries, rather than remaining among the nations that do the least for their youngest citizens.

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