As we enter the holiday week, it is worth remembering Edward R Murrow’s 1960 Thanksgiving Day broadcast of “Harvest of Shame.” (Sadly, it is not available on Netflix.) He painted a chilling picture of poverty in America and showed viewers the tremendous suffering of the workers who had grown the crops that made up the dinner most were sitting down to enjoy later that day.
Recently released census data for 2008 shows that the inequality that Murrow reported on in that ground breaking documentary has only grown worse. This is especially true for children. The National Center for Children in Poverty analyzed the data which is available on their web page.
Children are poor at rates much higher than any other age group, and younger children are the most likely to live in poverty. More than four out of every ten children lives in a low-income family and nearly one in five lives below the federal poverty line. There are 30 million low-income children in the United States.
It is not surprising that child poverty took a turn for the worse in 2008. It is disturbing that even during the good years from 2000 through 2007 there was a consistent and considerable increase in the percentage of children who are poor.
The situation in the District is shocking. Fifty-one percent of District children are low-income with 30% living in a home with an income below the federal poverty line. In more than half of these families, there is a working parent with too little income to move the family out of poverty.
Poverty is legacy that is passed from parent to child in the same way that wealth moves from one generation to the next. For many children living in poverty, the notion of social mobility is a myth.
Even in these bad economic times, there are many things the District can and should do:
- Increased the quality and quantity of work. The District needs to take steps to support the creation of good jobs for residents, implement programs to prepare workers and create a jobs environment that will support a middle class. Key to a successful jobs strategy is the increase in the minimum wage to a living wage and support measures such as mandatory paid sick days.
- Ensure that all working parents have access to quality and affordable child care. Coupled with care, these programs should focus on early childhood educational development, including reading readiness.
- Reduce overreliance on the criminal justice system. Over incarceration has harmed poor communities, stigmatized those caught up in the system and locked families in poverty.
- Ensure that all government supports are linguistically accessible and accommodating of persons with disabilities. Often language and disability are impoverishing conditions solely because of the barriers they create.
Some of these efforts will cost money and these are difficult budget times. But the costs of failing to address inequality vastly outweigh the expense.