Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Deep poverty" and the failure of welfare reform

It's clear now that the Romney/Ryan campaign is going to be relentless in continuing to spread their lies about the waivers the Obama administration made available to state's implementation of welfare.

Part of that lie involves pretending that the welfare reform of the 1990's was unequivocally successful. I suppose that if you are a Republican and would rather get rid of welfare all together - there might be some truth to that. But as the article about poverty by Paul Tough that I wrote about the other day explains, welfare reform has been anything BUT successful for many children living in poverty.

Tough points out the distinction that is often made between "shallow" poverty and "deep" poverty.
The Census Bureau tracks a category that the government calls “deep poverty”; families are said to be in deep poverty if they earn less than 50 percent of the poverty line — which means around $11,000 a year for a family of four, not including food stamps or other noncash support. The number of families in deep poverty grew sharply during the recent recession and its aftermath, and in 2010, the share of Americans whose families made less than half of the poverty line hit a record: 6.7 percent of the population, or 1 in 15 Americans. The numbers are even higher for children, disturbingly so. In 2010, 1 in every 10 American children lived in deep poverty.
He then goes on to explain that the reason for the increase in deep poverty has less to do with the current recession than it does with legislative changes made over the last two decades.
In 1984, federal aid to poor families was progressive, in the literal sense of the term — the poorest families got the most help. Single-parent families below 50 percent of the poverty line received, on average, $1,231 (in current dollars) per month from the federal government. Those in what could be considered shallow poverty, between 50 and 100 percent of the poverty line, received $448. But over the following 20 years, that situation was reversed. Government aid to families in deep poverty fell by 38 percent on average, while aid to families in shallow poverty increased by 86 percent. By 2004, the government was actually giving more, each month, to families in shallow poverty than to families in deep poverty.
And of course, one of the biggest contributors to this shift was welfare reform. In a sense, it shifted resources to those who are able to find work. For those who can't...you're on your own.

Tough gets to the heart of the problem with this when he addresses what that means for the children involved - and how deep poverty gets passed on from one generation to the next.
There are now seven million American children whose families earn below 50 percent of the poverty line. And in the last decade, we learned quite a lot about what it does to children to grow up surrounded by the kind of everyday chaos that often accompanies life in a family that is earning less than $11,000 a year. Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child’s development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions.

In fact, though, you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions. Intensive early interventions can make a big difference, but without that extra help, students from the poorest homes usually fall behind in school early on, and they rarely catch up. When you cluster lots of children with impulse-control issues together in a single classroom, it becomes harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn. And when these same children reach adolescence...they are more likely to become a danger to themselves, to each other and to their community.
That, my friends, is one of the best descriptions of what is going on in pockets of urban American that you'll read anywhere. Now throw in zero tolerance policies in our schools that lead to the school-to-prison pipeline and you have a perfect storm for ensuring that large swaths of our children fail and that deep poverty gets passed on from one generation to the next.

As Tough points out, there are no easy answers when it comes to solving this problem. But the one thing we DO know is that the lying demagogic race-baiting of the Romney/Ryan campaign is the exact opposite direction we need to go.

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