I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, October 4, 2012

America's Invisible Poor Children

I can't claim to have read all of the reporting and punditry following the debate. But it's remarkable that Diane Ravitch seems to be one of the very few people who noticed that childhood poverty is not a topic worthy of a presidential candidate's notice:

The Word Not Mentioned in the Debate

Lots of talk about the middle class. Tax cuts for the middle class. Saving the middle class. Doing more for the middle class.
Not one word about poverty.
No mention that nearly 25% of the children in the world’s richest nation live in poverty.
Not one word.
This blog mucks around in the education "reform" world, where lobbyists and corporate titans and foundations and think-tanky types all claim the moral high ground over actual educators. They don't have a vested interest in the outcome of "reform," you see; they are simply doing all this "for the children."

Yet, nearly without exception, the only time these people bring up poverty is to fashion it into an imaginary crutch used by their evil, unionized critics, who want to "maintain the status quo." See, people who stand against rampant charter expansion and merit pay and vouchers and standardized test-based teacher evaluations are "using poverty as an excuse." As to solving poverty... well, we'll get to that... eventually...

To be fair, however, this attitude does not exist solely in the reformy world, and last night's debate proved it. Neither President Obama nor Governor Romney thought enough of the issue of childhood poverty to mention it once. And adult poverty barely registered at all:
We were 75 minutes in before Gov. Romney became the first to mention poverty at all, and neither he nor President Obama mentioned child poverty,” said Ed Walz of First Focus. “There was some mention of the Child Tax Credit, but no acknowledgement at all of the fact that some of its best anti-poverty enhancements are going to vanish without real leadership.”
“Again, poor children remain politically invisible,” said Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician, president of Children’s Health Fund and professor at Columbia University. “In a debate focused on the economy, it would have been entirely appropriate to ask about plans to deal with poverty in general — and poverty among children in particular. For those who are legitimately worried about cutbacks in vital safety net programs for children during this economic downturn, this debate fell short.” [emphasis mine]
Perhaps if poor children voted, or gave campaign contributions, or organized a powerful lobbying group, they'd get more attention.

America has the highest child poverty rate in the entire developed world (no, Romania is not "developed"). Even though food stamps reduce the number of children in poverty by half, 1.4 million still live in extreme poverty. 1.6 million children - most under the age of seven - are homeless. 16 million children are living in a food insecure household.

The conservative response to this national crisis is to make the case that life can't be so bad for these kids if they have color TVs - as if that is a stunning luxury. But the neo-liberal response, exemplified by our reformy Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is little better:
Q. We hear a lot that the root problem is poverty, not schools. But how does performance vary among poor kids? Do poor minority kids in Boston do better than those in Atlanta?
A. Poor kids in Massachusetts are doing dramatically better than poor kids in other states.
Q. What does that tell you?
A. That poverty is not destiny. There are some folks who feel you have to end poverty to fix education. I believe you have to fix education to end poverty.
That's right: we are the number one developed nation in the world for child poverty... and our SecEd's response is that Massachusetts children "do better" than children in other states. Does that mean they get any more to eat?

If the United States got the fewest medals at this summer's Olympics among major developed countries, we would declare a national crisis. Commissions would be formed; pundits would be incensed; all of our resources would be marshaled to meet this catastrophe head on. And it's quite likely Jim Lehrer would have gotten around to asking about it last night.

Apparently, we can't muster that sort of passion for poor kids. We lead the developed world in childhood poverty, but neither of our presidential candidates, nor the media, seems to care very much. They waste time on ridiculous debates about the deficit and taxes on the wealthy while children live in cars and go to bed hungry.

Our poor children are invisible. What does that say about us?

ADDING: Kudos to Jonathan Capehart for also seeing what was missing last night.

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