Why not a war on child poverty?
President Barack Obama’s recent speeches at the LBJ Presidential Library and National Action Network marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act had a serious omission. While acknowledging “our work is unfinished,” Obama failed to mention this nation’s worst social trend: the stunning increase of children and youth living in poverty.
Since 1969, the proportion of children and youth in poverty rose by 56 percent, even as the economic fortunes of the elderly improved under programs like Medicare and Social Security. Today, 32 million American children and youth are confronting poverty — including 7 million suffering utter destitution, another 9 million living in serious poverty and 16 million more in low-income households struggling just above poverty lines.
Even as Obama has launched My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative to help poorer young men, his administration continues to largely ignore this larger issue. In fact, Obama said, addressing youth poverty “doesn’t take all that much.” No federal money has been budgeted for the initiative.
Instead, My Brother’s Keeper is initially to raise $7.5 million from 10 major foundations for “consultants,” and then perhaps attract $200 million in “private investments” over the next five years — largely aimed at mentoring, church and related programs. One key component, for example, is an effort to make sure impoverished young people “make better decisions.”
My Brother’s Keeper simply rehashes earlier efforts: President Bill Clinton’s “personal responsibility” campaign of the 1990s, the Robert F. Kennedy/Ford Foundation “Gray Areas Program” of the 1960s and similar government/private ventures. All promised new breakthroughs. None produced enduring success.
What do leaders do when they really want to reduce poverty? They put up the dough. The federal government spent $650 billion in 2012 on the nation’s 43 million elderly, $15,000 per recipient, in Social Security assistance. Government works for them! Poverty rates among senior citizens plunged from 25 percent in 1969 to just 9 percent today — the sunniest trends of any age.
In contrast, the government spent just $31 billion on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 2012 for poorer American children and youth — $970 per young recipient. Today, 22 percent of children and teenagers languish in poverty, the worst of any age group.
This vast spending gap marks the difference between Social Security’s success versus the TANF’s failure, along with private-sector wages, public tax and benefits structures, and elder-friendly policies that boost the old out of poverty while keeping the young mired in disadvantage.
The Obama administration has continued a 40-year pattern, lavishing attention on older people and offering piecemeal efforts for the young. Cuts in student loan interest rates will modestly reduce the massive debt students now shoulder. Refunding AmeriCorps can provide roughly 80,000 jobs for young people — at a time when youth unemployment is triple that of over-20 adults. The Dream Act will greatly help young immigrants. The Affordable Care Act allows mainly middle- and upper-middle-class 18-to-26-year-olds to continue on their parents’ health insurance policies.
On the other hand, Obamacare has arbitrarily raised health insurance rates for young insurees to subsidize capping premiums for older enrollees. Even with education loan relief, college costs remain three times higher in real dollars than 40 years ago. The president’s Fair Pay Act excludes young people from its protections. Even as the president regular cites young people as violent and prone to “mess up,” he has proposed no comprehensive federal plan to reduce child and youth poverty.
Among its many devastating effects, poverty is linked to a tragedy that Obama focuses on: gun violence. In California as elsewhere, 83 percent of teenage gun homicides occur in populations in which youth poverty levels top 20 percent.
Consider this stark contrast. Teenagers in Richmond, California (population 110,000), have suffered scores of gun murders since 1995 — as has Richmond’s middle-aged population. A few miles away, Marin County, with 250,000 people, has had no teenagers murdered by guns since 1995.
The secret of Marin’s anti-gun-violence success? It’s called “a low youth poverty rate” — under 10 percent. Richmond youth, however, suffer a poverty rate topping 40 percent.
Given this White House’s emotional rhetoric deploring gun violence and violence by young people, one would think confronting youth poverty would be its highest priority.
What young people need is a comprehensive social insurance plan, prioritized as the president and liberals do for elder welfare. Including young people in social insurance, as every other Western nation does, would cost far less than Social Security but much more than is now spent on “temporary assistance.”
Of course, many conservatives would oppose extending social insurance and investing substantially more federal money to help young people. But does Obama want his legacy to be one of not even trying — an administration whose response to helping the impoverished young was “not that much”?
PHOTO (TOP): Julieta Gonzalez, 2, waits at a “Back-to-School” giveaway for 5,000 homeless and underprivileged children at the Fred Jordan Mission in Los Angeles, California, October 6, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
PHOTO (INSERT 1): (L-R) Timothy, Zack and Casey Spyder in Slab City, which attracts financially struggling Great Recession refugees, just outside Niland, California, February 17, 2012. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Social Security poster of an older woman. Courtesy of FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM
PHOTO (INSERT 3): President Lyndon B. Johnson speaking with former President Harry S. Truman during the signing of the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. LBJ PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY/Yoichi Okamoto