USA Today reported this week that the national poverty crisis now affects 1 out of 5 children in the United States, up from 1 out of 6 just four years ago. This astonishing figure is a sober reminder that the recession isn't just stretching our safety net, but it's also threatening the success of the next generation of Americans.
Indeed, childhood poverty in the United States ignites a devastating chain of consequences that leads to equally devastating places:
- Four-year-old kids living in poverty are 18 months behind their peers. These gaps in early childhood persist throughout a child's youth, with clear and established links to the high school dropout rate, teenage pregnancy and unemployment.
- Only a little over 15 percent of fourth graders from poor homes are reading at levels considered proficient by the U.S. Department of Education. According to a recent study from the Casey Foundation, the clearest sign a child will drop out of high school is subpar reading scores in elementary school. Almost half of all high school dropouts are on government assistance and a high school dropout is eight times more likely to be incarcerated.
- Half of kids living in rural areas -- where poverty is at extraordinary levels -- are obese or overweight, compared to one third nationally. The obesity crisis puts kids at risk for "adult" diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, stunting their productivity and straining an already exhausted health care system.
We can have a debate about the best and most effective ways of eliminating poverty but there's no better place to start than the by protecting the next generation. Doing so means reversing the effects of poverty through smart interventions and innovative programs.
There are many highly effective steps we can take to blunt poverty's permanent effects on young kids. Here are three:
- Invest in public-private partnerships that are proven to make a real difference in a toddler's development. The Early Learning Challenge Fund would provide billions of dollars in grants to innovative early education programs and save billions over the long term through a better educated and more productive America.
- After-school programs can give kids reading below grade level the extra boost they need to catch up with their peers. There are three bills in Congress that would increase after-school programs for kids struggling to read. These programs work--Save the Children's after-school program almost doubled the number of kids reading at grade level at some schools in the most remote, low-income parts of the nation
- We can combat the twin childhood hunger and obesity crises by increasing access to healthier school lunches. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 would provide healthier meals to hundreds of thousands more kids than the current school lunch program does.
In the midst of this economic downturn, we may not be able to end poverty for all kids. Still, that's no reason why businesses, families, non-profits, and, yes, government can't work together so that kids being raised by struggling parents get a fair chance in life.