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The Kids Count

(Photo: Thomas Hawk / Flickr)

''If the top earners are O.K., then the rest of us will be O.K.''

That piece of economic sleight of hand has been a central tenet in the Republican catechism since even before Ronald Reagan and long before the Tea Party.

The Grand Old Party clings to this totally discredited and never proven economic article of faith despite a mountain of evidence that grows higher with each passing week in recession.

The figures that tell most of this sorry story are these, reported in Mother Jones: A huge share of the nation's economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? It's $31,244.

But there's another part of the story that's not usually told. It's how American children are being affected by the Great Recession.

One of the few looks into this largely hidden part of the issue was taken by “60 Minutes” on CBS television a few weeks ago. The show revealed a large cohort of school kids who have been forced to live in motels because their parents lost their jobs and then their homes through foreclosure.

These kids run over to their school to brush their teeth and wash up in the morning. They run out to the nearest fast-food joints, with their parents, at mealtimes. In the mornings, a special school bus picks them up near their motels. The bus is dedicated to that task. And many families who aren't living in motels, or camping out with friends or relatives, are living in municipal shelters. One father, out of work for more than a year, has taken to sitting on the curb of a busy thoroughfare with an upside-down cap and displaying a sign that reads, “Will Work for Food – Family of Three.”

Now, the Annie E. Casey Foundation gives us a set of hard and very grim data to support “60 Minutes'” anecdotal view. That data is very scary, very anger inducing and very heartbreaking. The new numbers on 2009 poverty among US children finds 31 million children living in families that are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Now, in 2010, they are higher still.

On the PBS “NewsHour,” Judy Woodruff discussed the new statistics with Patrick McCarthy, CEO of the Casey Foundation, which has spent years compiling this kind of data about kids.

The foundation's new report – “Kids Count” – tells us that poverty rates among children rose substantially, not just during the recession, but throughout the last decade. The official child poverty rate rose by nearly 20 percent from 2000 to 2009. And, in 2010, 11 percent of children lived with at least one unemployed parent.

That means that 20 percent of all American children are living in poverty. Twenty percent is 31 million kids. Think about it!

The foundation says that what's even more troubling in some ways is that the children who are on the edge of living in poverty, those children who live with families that are at 200 percent of the federal poverty level, now comprise 42 percent of all children living at that level.

McCarthy describes the children living at or below $43,500 a year – as surviving ''two or three paychecks away from economic catastrophe.''

McCarthy understates the figures as ''stunning'' – ''especially when you consider what the research tells us what happens when children grow up in poverty or when they slip into poverty as a result of recession.''

He says: ''We know that kids who grow up poor are much more likely to end up being poor themselves. They're more likely to have children too early with teen pregnancy. They're more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system as they grow up. They're less likely to be employed. And they're less likely to fully use the talents that they're given.''

McCarthy's foundation looked at all the past recent recessions. It compared children who slipped into poverty as a result of one of those recessions with a child at the same level of income before the recession. Those kids who fell into poverty, in fact, were less likely to graduate from school, more likely to have school problems, more likely to have educational difficulty.

And even health was affected over the long term as those kids were followed into adulthood.

McCarthy called attention to the effects of the housing crisis, of so many foreclosures, on children. This is also a story that is not often told.

Between 2007 and 2009, 5.3 million children were directly affected by the foreclosure crisis, having to leave their homes. We're talking about four percent of the children in this country being affected by a foreclosure crisis.

McCarthy says that ''there's another hidden fact here, though and that is that the children who live in a rental housing, when the owner of that property goes through foreclosure, too often, that rental – that family renting in that property is forced to move.''

And we know a lot about what happens to children when they have to move frequently. Again, their schoolwork suffers. They often have to change schools, which puts them behind. They're less likely to graduate from school. They're more likely to have behavioral problems. There's a whole list of problems that come about as a result of a foreclosure crisis.

McCarthy proposes a two-generation strategy for dealing with these monumental problems.

Short term, unemployment insurance is a key protector of kids and families when unemployment is as high as it is. The earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, these kinds of things help to supplement wages and keep kids out of poverty.

''The two-generation strategy means focusing on the parents, but also then investing early in children. We know from research that high-quality prenatal care, high-quality child care and pre-K and especially education in the early years is critical to put children on a path towards opportunity.

''We believe that what you need to focus on is what's most important, so every dollar is used in the best way, what's most cost-effective and what can you do now, in 2011, that's going to shape what this country looks like in 2031, in 2041 and in 2051,'' he says.

Acknowledging that these strategies cost money to implement, Woodruff asked McCarthy how he intends to overcome the current strictures on government spending.

McCarthy's response: ''You know, the answer to me is that this country is great in part because we have certain core shared values. And I think the most important shared value that we all have, regardless of our perspective on economics or politics, is that this is a country where we care about opportunity. We care that parents can tell their kids that, if they work hard and they use their talents, they're going to get ahead.

''And if we don't invest in ensuring that that opportunity is really available for all of our children, we start to come apart as a country and we lose one of our greatest strengths. So, I think this is actually a shared value. I should also point out that investing in children is not what's driving the deficit or the debt. In fact, children represent a small portion of our overall budget.

''So, we ought to be investing smart, as well as recognizing we ought to deal with the problem today, but not in a way that's going to harm us in the future.''

One has to admire his optimism in the face of the permanent tone deafness of Tea Party Republicans; and, in fact, the Democrats aren't doing much heavy lifting on this urgent issue either. Talking is not the same as Doing.

So, it saddens me to tell you I believe Mr. McCarthy is headed for a crash into the indestructible wall of reactionary public policy planning.

Maybe the solution is to turn children's poverty disaster over to Rep. Paul Ryan, who will fix it by turning it into a voucher program!

It's time we asked ourselves: What will our country look like a generation from now if we all bleep out the callousness; the cruelty; the uncaring; the herd instinct; the incomprehensible hubris exhibited by lawmakers who continue to disgrace themselves and their country by ignoring, not their own children, but everyone else's?

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