The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Revealing the devastating costs of childhood poverty

Families spend the night in the parking lot of a fairground in Wise, Va., in July 2015 before a free medical clinic opened the next morning. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)
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In 1962, Michael Harrington published his groundbreaking exposé on poverty, “The Other America,” which helped awaken the country to the scourge of poverty. Yet after six decades, the paradox of poverty amid plenty remains. This disturbing fact serves as the starting point for Jeff Madrick’s book “Invisible Americans.”

Like Harrington’s, Madrick’s goal is to reveal the conditions, causes and costs of poverty, specifically childhood poverty. His underlying assumption is that if we as a nation truly understood the tragic toll of child poverty, we would act decisively to alleviate it.

Madrick rightly points out that the United States has the highest rates of child poverty and deprivation among the wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Why should this be? Although many possible reasons exist, one particularly powerful set of factors is that the nation has often viewed the poor as undeserving of assistance.

This conviction has taken many forms. One argument is that the poor do not work hard enough and/or have made bad decisions in life. A second is that the poor are caught in a “culture of poverty,” in which single parenthood and crime predominate. Yet another set of beliefs imagines most of the poor to be nonwhite and living off welfare. In all these cases, the poverty-stricken are disdained as undeserving of compassion or assistance. They are the ones responsible for their own fate and therefore must accept the consequences.

Madrick marshals a vast array of social scientific research to show that each of these beliefs is clearly incorrect. In addition, he describes the human and societal toll that child poverty produces. For example, he points to a study I undertook along with Michael McLaughlin of Washington University in St. Louis showing that childhood poverty costs the United States approximately $1 trillion a year in increased medical and criminal-justice costs, along with lower economic productivity.

Furthermore, Madrick correctly argues that much of American poverty is a result of failings at a structural rather than an individual level. This includes a lack of decent-paying jobs, a shortage of affordable child and health care, a shredded safety net, and so on. To use an analogy, we have focused our attention on who loses the game, rather than why the game produces losers in the first place.

What then is the answer? Madrick argues that the most straightforward and effective way to significantly reduce child poverty is through a cash allowance available to all children. The idea is similar to a universal basic income, a concept being discussed in progressive circles. Every child would be guaranteed an income that would be paid to their parents, perhaps $300 to $400 a month. Through such payments, Madrick argues, child poverty could be cut in half. Many Western industrialized countries have adopted similar policies, lowering their poverty rates as a result.

Overall, “Invisible Americans” does an excellent job pulling together and synthesizing the latest research on the dynamics of child poverty in the United States. It is a clarion call to address this most unjust blight upon the American landscape. Madrick has provided a valuable service in presenting a highly readable and cogent argument for change.

Yet I am left with a disturbing thought: What if factual evidence and arguments do not change hearts and minds? This book’s method (which I have also followed throughout my career) is to provide well-reasoned arguments based on the best available research. Most policy analysts would strongly argue that we should be guided by such an approach.

However, it is possible that the myths and misguided beliefs about poverty benefit many of us, particularly those with influence, which contributes to their staying power. Clearly the myths surrounding the “welfare freeloader” have been used by political leaders from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Donald Trump to further their careers. Likewise, race has been used strategically by Southern politicians to divide poor blacks and whites, keeping them from seeing their common economic interests.

Moreover, such myths let those who are not poor off the hook. “Why should I give up my hard-earned tax dollars to someone who is not willing to work hard?” is a frequent refrain. As President Trump remarked at a rally in St. Charles, Mo., two years ago, “But welfare reform — I see it and I’ve talked to people. I know people, they work three jobs, and they live next to somebody who doesn’t work at all. And the person who’s not working at all, and has no intention of working at all, is making more money and doing better than the person that’s working his and her ass off. And it’s not going to happen. Not going to happen.” The crowd in attendance roared its approval. Such attitudes are unlikely to be moved by arguing for providing poor children and their parents with a monthly cash stipend, whether working or not.

And yet, as we have seen over the past decade, a shift in our understanding and response to economic inequality may be in the air. Ultimately poverty affects us all. Grass-roots groups across the country have been organizing and working to fundamentally change the conditions that disenfranchise so many Americans, poor and nonpoor alike. They would do well to use “Invisible Americans” as a launching point.

The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty

By Jeff Madrick

Knopf. 231 pp. $25