Dems' Flawed Plan on Childhood Poverty

By Don Rollins

It’s getting harder to be a kid in America. So says a recent report from the US Census Bureau confirming that children remain the perennial losers when it comes to systemic poverty: fully 1 in every 5 is being raised on poverty-line family incomes.

The news is even more dire for children under five, the poorest of the poor: infants, toddlers and preschoolers, nearly half of whom live in what the government designates “extreme poverty” (i.e. households below the paltry incomes of $9,500 for three and $11,500 for four.)

Children of color are at even greater risk. While poverty rates for white children are 1 in 8, that number rises to 1 in 3 for children of color. And the numbers are appalling when controlling for poverty rates among African American kids: some 43% of those under four and nearly a quarter overall are in the extreme category.

And to place all this in the aggregate, global context, the US now has the second-highest rate of childhood poverty among the top 35 developed economies.

These are grim figures, indicative of decades of systems failure that cannot be staid, let alone reversed without sustained, targeted government intervention. What’s required to lower the human pain index behind the report is an executive branch willing to stay the course on so dense a problem.

But as the presidential contest nears its final rounds, neither candidate has indicated much interest in childhood poverty. Turns out in a battle for swing state capital, hungry kids don’t count for much.

As for the Republicans, there is a plank in the party platform wholly in keeping with its “you’re only as poor as you wanna be” guiding principle. The conservatives’ answer to childhood poverty is government/faith community partnerships; moving more folks off assistance programs, and tax reform.

On the Democratic side of the ledger there is a different yet woefully anemic set of solutions. Buried deep in their own platform is a three-point outline to alleviate poverty via three strategies: 1) partnerships with faith-based organizations; 2) a raise the minimum wage, and 3) getting better bang for the government social services buck.

The Democratic plan rightly calls for something closer to a living wage and at least a modicum of ongoing government assistance to poor kids and their caretakers. Disappointing as the Dems’ plan is, it’s miles ahead in addressing the human pain index behind the Census Bureau statistics.

But Democratic policymakers have joined their conservative counterparts in yielding to the mistaken notion that faith-based organizations can be a major player in addressing childhood poverty.

There are two fatal flaws to what amount to Democratic twists on Bush-era solutions. First, assuming that faith communities can fill the massive vacuum created by yanking billions of dollars out of public programs is ludicrous. Giving to religious organizations has been flat for the last three years, but ahead of that problem is the reality that religious organizations fluctuate in what they give away and what they retain for their own purposes. At best, charitable giving is a fluid, undependable source of revenue.

Second, by identifying faith communities as a go-to frontline partner for alleviating childhood poverty, Democratic policymakers have adopted a strategy freighted with countless opportunities for theological enmeshment and convoluted joint policies. The opportunities for abuse will be legion.

It’s unfortunate that otherwise progressive Democratic strategists have continued down the path of increasing dependence on charity for solving childhood poverty. It’s a page out of the Republican economic play book that may well make a shameful reality even worse.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2012

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