Fighting poverty with education; hope for breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

Though childhood poverty rates have fluctuated over the years, they are currently on the rise. Newborns in the 1980s and '90s had higher poverty rates than those in the late 1960s and early '70s, Ratcliffe's research showed. Poverty rates declined in the first years of the 21st century, but increased again after the start of 2008 recession, rising to the highest level in nearly two decades during 2010 and '11.

Breaking the cycle

Helping children at school isn’t likely to solve the problem of persistent poverty if parents don’t get help, Ratcliffe said. She suggests home nursing visits to help with breastfeeding and get babies off to a good start; help for maternal depression, which is rampant among poor mothers; and working to improve family function and home environments. Increasing public spending in these areas in these areas would pay for itself in the long run, Ratcliffe said.

Solving inter-generational poverty requires a multi-pronged approach, said licensed social worker Ben Reuler. Helping kids succeed at school takes a lot of work outside of school, Reuler said, and there is no single solution.

"Poverty is never just about housing, or mental health or having a job, or child care," said Reuler, who works to break the poverty cycle as executive director of LIFT-Chicago.

LIFT-Chicago is a non-profit group that works to lift motivated people out of poverty. Many of the poor people Reuler works with are hard workers who want to solve their situation, he said. Still, they need mentoring to bootstrap themselves through the maze of red tape that goes along with improving their own educational levels, job status and housing so their children can succeed.

Reuler said that though many programs exist to help the poor, the system is highly fragmented, and difficult to navigate. Even as a licensed social worker whose first language is English, he finds it challenging to patch together federal, state and local grants and assistance programs to help LIFT-Chicago's clients.

Some of the governmental supports that could help families climb out of poverty have weakened, though. America’s social safety net — including Social Security, unemployment insurance, earned income tax credits and nutritional assistance programs — has been unraveling over several decades, as noted in “The State of Working America,” a report by the Economic Policy Institute.

"Policy decisions made over the last several decades have caused this explosive rise in inequality," the report said. "These decisions include: lowering individual and corporate tax rates; deregulating industries; failing to maintain the value of the minimum wage; failing to protect the right of workers to obtain collective bargaining; and failing to prevent asset bubbles."

When hard times hit, they hit the poor hardest, because workers at the bottom of the economic scale scrape by from paycheck to paycheck. In a faltering economy, those on the economic ladder's lowest rung are more vulnerable to financial devastation if a job is lost.

That's one reason Ratcliffe recommends programs that give poor families a dollar-for-dollar match for saving — a suggestion many find counter-intuitive, she said. Families need their own emergency funds to deal with unexpected crises, Ratcliffe said. And, children learn good lessons when families, even very poor ones, have savings accounts.

"Research shows that kids who have a savings account in their name, particularly a savings account for college, are more likely to go to college," she said.

Paying now or later

Focusing public resources on poverty is an expensive prospect, but failing to do so could be more expensive, Ratcliffe said.

"We have generations of children, and not an insubstantial number, who are born poor," she said. "If we don't target resources today, there will be costs and repercussions down the road in our health care and criminal justice systems. We shouldn't be spending that money after the fact. Those resources will be much better spent up front."

A study from the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, came to similar conclusions. The study estimates the cost of childhood poverty in United States at about $500 billion per year, because of reductions to productivity and economic output, and costs for health care spending and dealing with crime.

"The high cost of childhood poverty to the U.S. suggests that investing significant resources in poverty reduction might be more cost-effective over time than we previously thought," the report said. "Of course, determining the effectiveness of various policies requires careful evaluation research in a variety of areas."

Conclusions from the Center for American Progress study were that poor children could be helped by pre-kindergarten programs; expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit and other supports for the working poor; low-income neighborhood revitalization; and promotion of marriage and other faith-based initiatives.

"When parents are stable, kids are stable," Reuler said.

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