The New York Times
February 18, 2008
Poverty Is Poison
By PAUL KRUGMAN
“Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain.” That was the opening of an article in Saturday’s Financial Times, summarizing research presented last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
As the article explained, neuroscientists have found that “many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development.” The effect is to impair language development and memory — and hence the ability to escape poverty — for the rest of the child’s life.
So now we have another, even more compelling reason to be ashamed about America’s record of failing to fight poverty.
L. B. J. declared his “War on Poverty” 44 years ago. Contrary to cynical legend, there actually was a large reduction in poverty over the next few years, especially among children, who saw their poverty rate fall from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969.
But progress stalled thereafter: American politics shifted to the right, attention shifted from the suffering of the poor to the alleged abuses of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, and the fight against poverty was largely abandoned.
In 2006, 17.4 percent of children in America lived below the poverty line, substantially more than in 1969. And even this measure probably understates the true depth of many children’s misery.
Living in or near poverty has always been a form of exile, of being cut off from the larger society. But the distance between the poor and the rest of us is much greater than it was 40 years ago, because most American incomes have risen in real terms while the official poverty line has not. To be poor in America today, even more than in the past, is to be an outcast in your own country. And that, the neuroscientists tell us, is what poisons a child’s brain.
America’s failure to make progress in reducing poverty, especially among children, should provoke a lot of soul-searching. Unfortunately, what it often seems to provoke instead is great creativity in making excuses.
Some of these excuses take the form of assertions that America’s poor really aren’t all that poor — a claim that always has me wondering whether those making it watched any TV during Hurricane Katrina, or for that matter have ever looked around them while visiting a major American city.
Mainly, however, excuses for poverty involve the assertion that the United States is a land of opportunity, a place where people can start out poor, work hard and become rich.
But the fact of the matter is that Horatio Alger stories are rare, and stories of people trapped by their parents’ poverty are all too common. According to one recent estimate, American children born to parents in the bottom fourth of the income distribution have almost a 50 percent chance of staying there — and almost a two-thirds chance of remaining stuck if they’re black.
That’s not surprising. Growing up in poverty puts you at a disadvantage at every step.
I’d bracket those new studies on brain development in early childhood with a study from the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracked a group of students who were in eighth grade in 1988. The study found, roughly speaking, that in modern America parental status trumps ability: students who did very well on a standardized test but came from low-status families were slightly less likely to get through college than students who tested poorly but had well-off parents.
None of this is inevitable.
Poverty rates are much lower in most European countries than in the United States, mainly because of government programs that help the poor and unlucky.
And governments that set their minds to it can reduce poverty. In Britain, the Labor government that came into office in 1997 made reducing poverty a priority — and despite some setbacks, its program of income subsidies and other aid has achieved a great deal. Child poverty, in particular, has been cut in half by the measure that corresponds most closely to the U.S. definition.
At the moment it’s hard to imagine anything comparable happening in this country. To their credit — and to the credit of John Edwards, who goaded them into it — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are proposing new initiatives against poverty. But their proposals are modest in scope and far from central to their campaigns.
I’m not blaming them for that; if a progressive wins this election, it will be by promising to ease the anxiety of the middle class rather than aiding the poor. And for a variety of reasons, health care, not poverty, should be the first priority of a Democratic administration.
But ultimately, let’s hope that the nation turns back to the task it abandoned — that of ending the poverty that still poisons so many American lives.
LETTERS IN RESPONSE:
The New York Times
Printer Friendly Format Sponsored By
February 22, 2008
Children in Poverty: There Is No Excuse
To the Editor:
“Poverty Is Poison,” by Paul Krugman (column, Feb. 18), echoes what members of Congress heard at a national summit meeting about child development that Democrats convened last year. Children who grow up in poverty have a much lower chance of success in school and in life, but investments in early childhood development help to even the odds, offering hope and opportunity where little existed before.
The despair that poverty brings to millions of American children compels us to take a serious and sustained national approach. Last year’s bipartisan revamping of the Head Start program to focus on early intervention was huge progress; now we need to do the hard work of making sure this important initiative is financed.
Other solutions can be found in our tax policy — we can reward parents struggling to lift their families out of poverty.
Democrats insisted that the recent economic stimulus package include rebate checks for 35 million families who work but earn too little to pay federal income tax, and we included additional benefits for families with children. The approach of these recovery rebates is similar to that of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is widely recognized as one of America’s most effective anti-poverty policies.
Poverty is indeed poison — to the children who fall prey to it, and to the future strength of our nation. With a singularity of purpose, America can develop an antidote.
Speaker of the House
Washington, Feb. 20, 2008
To the Editor:
Paul Krugman is right that the “War on Poverty” 44 years ago had a positive effect by reducing poverty, particularly among children. That this effort to improve the lives of millions of Americans was derailed by reactionary politics couldn’t be more true.
In the late 1960s, I was responsible for coordinating federal antipoverty programs for the six states of the Northeast at the United States Office of Economic Opportunity. I saw firsthand the positive effects of programs like Head Start, the Job Corps and the Neighborhood Youth Corps — designed to help children and teenagers.
I also witnessed the cynical, systematic attacks on these programs by Richard M. Nixon and his point man, Spiro T. Agnew. The phony rhetoric they used to stigmatize the programs was passed along by the media. Thus, “economic opportunity” programs became “minority” and then “welfare dependency” ones. The reality was that two-thirds of the poor being served were white.
Nixon severely weakened the national initiatives, and then Ronald Reagan abolished the coordinated federal effort altogether in 1981. (At the time I was chairman of the president’s National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity.) The consequence: four million Americans were driven into poverty, most of whom were women and children.
Poverty is poison, and politics can be toxic.
Arthur I. Blaustein
Berkeley, Calif., Feb. 18, 2008
To the Editor:
Paul Krugman helps shatter the myth that there is nothing we can do about poverty. Too many people think that the state of poverty in America is inevitable, never questioning what we can do to change it nor looking at the inspiring progress of other industrialized nations.
I believe that it is possible not only to end poverty in the United States, but also to end extreme poverty around the globe within our lifetime. Our country can help make this happen by passing the Global Poverty Act and holding ourselves accountable for our part in achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
Cynthia Changyit Levin
Morton Grove, Ill., Feb. 18, 2008
To the Editor:
Having worked in Newark for over a decade, I am bewildered that people could believe that poor Americans are not that poor.
Poverty anywhere is not a fixed notion but a relationship between the resources available to the general public and the resources available to the poor. From health care and nutrition to transportation and access to good schools, poor children and their families struggle every minute of every day. Those who do climb out of poverty have done so with immense and uncommon personal effort. Not everyone is so gifted.
John Edwards did indeed set the stage for Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to follow on this matter.
Jo Ann Joseph
Glen Ridge, N.J., Feb. 18, 2008
To the Editor:
In a new study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, cognitive neuroscientists found that while stories were being read to children of poverty, they were “less able to screen out noises embedded in the stories” than were children from more affluent families. Such evidence suggests that cognitive skills are strongly influenced by environment.
Since distractions of all kinds, including those that stem from difficult home environments and antisocial street behaviors, are a constant in the lives or many poor children, it is no wonder that their reading test scores suffer. Nor is it then surprising that as a consequence, dropouts and suspensions are disproportionate among minority children, especially black boys.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, now all but forgotten, needs to be revived by our next president.
Jamaica, Queens, Feb. 18, 2008
The writer is dean of the school of education, St. John’s University.