First Lady Jeanette Herbert, chair of the Governor's Commission on Literacy, helped launch Utah's participation in jumpstarting 2012 'Read for the Record' by reading Ladybug and the Bug Squad with students at Jackson Elementary in Salt Lake City.
When parents are stable, kids are stable. —Licensed social worker Ben Reuler

SALT LAKE CITY — Education is the brightest hope for breaking the cycle of multi-generational poverty. But, kids born to poor, under-educated parents aren't likely to succeed at school without help that targets their family situations, and that help is most needed during their earliest years.

Those are among conclusions of "Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence," a study by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute.

A harrowing portrait of the United States' growing underclass emerges from the longitudinal study, which analyzed poverty rates for more than 13,000 newborns born between 1967 and 2008.

Poverty's long reach

The Urban Institute's social policy researchers found that one in six U.S. newborns was born poor, and nearly half of those babies went on to spend at least half of their childhood in poverty. More than one-third of poor children were born into "deep poverty" — to parents living on incomes less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2012 this amounts to an annual income of $9,545 for a family of three.

Parents' low educational attainment was shown to predict persistent poverty for their children more consistently than any other factor the study investigated — including single motherhood, family unemployment, young age of parents or living in inner-city neighborhoods.

Earning a high school diploma can help break the cycle of multi-generational poverty, but persistent poverty makes earning that diploma a tough challenge, the study said. Children who spend more than half of their childhoods poor are nearly 90 percent more likely than never-poor children to enter their 20s without completing high school.

"What we really see is that children often follow in their parent's footsteps in regard to educational attainment," said Caroline Ratcliffe, an economist who co-authored the study. "Children whose parents don't graduate from high school are likely to drop out, too. Those without a high school degree by age 20 are more likely to have patchy employment in young adulthood, and be poor as an adult. You can see the cycle."

Newborns and minorities hard-hit

Poverty strikes its most innocent victims hardest of all, the report found. Stresses associated with poverty — including malnutrition, lack of mental stimulation, poor health care, frequent moving and general insecurity — have their direst effect on newborns and children up to age two. Children who live in poverty in those first years of life are about 30 percent less likely to complete high school than children who became poor later in childhood, according to the "Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence" report.

"I think what this report is saying is that early interventions are very important," Ratcliffe said, "Targeting resources to these kids from birth is vital, because home environment in early years is so important to brain development."

A National Science Academy study corroborated poverty's effects on young brains, showing that the stresses of childhood poverty reduce working memory in young adults. Low income and low academic achievement are already advancing in lockstep by the time children enter kindergarten, and the longer children must endure economic hardship, the lower their achievement levels sink, it said.

Deepest poverty strikes minority children at higher rates than white children. Forty-six percent of poor black newborns live in deep poverty, while only 30 percent of poor white newborns do. Longitudinal data on Latino children wasn't kept before the 1990s, so long-term comparisons weren't made. However, among children born in the 1990s, 39 percent of Hispanic newborns were born poor, compared to 44 percent of black children and 10 percent of white newborns.

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.