Poverty amid plenty
Life is becoming harder for children in some key industrialized countries. Slowly but surely over the last 15 years, some of the world’s most powerful economies have tilted in an ominous new direction — towards the devaluation of children — flouting the conventional wisdom that child neglect and deprivation have no place in rich nations. Most dramatically in the United States, but also in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, a significant number of children are failing to thrive.
The United States has by far the highest percentage of children living in poverty: 20 per cent, which represents a 21 per cent increase since 1970, as shown on page 3. Three other ‘Anglo-American’ countries — Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom—are at or near the 9 per cent mark. Yet, in most other rich countries, child poverty rates are a fraction of the United States rate. (1) In Western Europe and Japan, for example, child poverty rates typically hover around 2 to 5 per cent. (2)
The problems of children in Anglo-American nations today range from elemental issues of safety and shelter to more complicated issues of psychic health and educational performance. Child poverty rates, school drop-out rates and teenage suicide rates are all on the rise. In the United States, Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores for college-bound students are 70 points lower than they were 20 years ago. In the United Kingdom, the number of adolescents taking their own lives grew by 41 per cent during the 1980s. In New Zealand, the number of reported child-abuse cases has doubled in six years. And in Australia, the number of homeless children has increased by a third since 1980. According to one recent blueribbon committee, “Never before has one generation of children been less healthy, less cared for or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.” (3)
These tendencies are particularly ironic given the new level of public commitment to children by world leaders. At the World Summit for Children, held in September 1990 at United Nations Headquarters in New York and attended by approximately half the world’s Presidents and Prime Ministers, governments formally adopted a set of goals to improve the life circumstances of children. These included controlling major childhood diseases, halving the incidence of child malnutrition and reducing by a third the death rate in children under five years old. Most countries agreed to draw up national programmes of action to implement the goals.
Despite such impressive initiatives, a large gap between rhetoric and reality remains. A case in point: The 1990 World Summit urged all countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document seeking to lay down minimum standards for the survival, protection and development of all children. As of 31 August 1993,146 nations had ratified it; the United States has yet to do so. But without the full commitment to young people of the world’s richest democracy, we cannot go beyond “the edge of a new era of concern for the silent and invisible tragedy that poverty inflicts on today’s children and on tomorrow’s world.” (4)
The root causes of child neglect in rich nations have to do with new forms of scarcity in both public resources and parental time. In the financial sphere, policy makers display a weak and eroding commitment to children. For example, during the 1980s, governments pursuing laissezfaire policies reduced housing budgets, cut back on welfare payments to poor families and denied large numbers of working mothers the right to spend a few weeks at home with their newborn babies.
In the United States during that decade, less than 5 per cent of the federal budget was spent on programmes that supported families with children, while approximately 24 per cent of federal resources was spent on persons over the age of 65. (5) Canadafollowedasimilarpattern. By 1990, per capita government spending on senior citizens was 2.7 times greater than that allocated to the young. (6) In these two countries, at least, the resources invested at the beginning of life are now dwarfed by the resources consumed at the end of life. American and Canadian policy makers have tended to socialize the costs of growing old and to privatize childhood at a time when fragile family structures make it particularly difficult for parents to carry the entire child-raising load.
In the Anglo-American world, this failure to invest public money in children has been aggravated by a growing time deficit. Over the last two decades there has been a sharp decline in the amount of time parents spend caring for their children, a trend that has been particularly pronounced in the United Kingdom and the United States. According to Stanford University economist Victor Fuchs, American children have lost 10 to 12 hours of parental time per week. (7) The time parents have available for their children has been squeezed by the rapid shift of mothers into the paid labour force, by escalating divorce rates and the abandonment of children by their fathers, and by an increase in the number of hours required on the job. In the United States, the average worker is now at work 163 hours a year more than in 1967, which adds up to an extra month of work annually. (8) In a similar vein, time spent on the job in the United Kingdom increased by two hours a week during the 1980s. (9)
Much of this new parental time pressure is, of course, involuntary, provoked by falling wage rates and escalating housing costs. But whatever the reasons behind the parental time deficit, it has had extremely negative effects on children. Unsupervised ‘latchkey’ children are at increased risk of substance abuse, and children with little or no contact with their fathers are less likely to perform well at school.
The failure to invest either public resources or private time in the raising of children has left millions of youngsters in this important group of Anglo-American cultures fending for themselves, and coping more or less badly with the difficult business of growing up in the 1990s. True, many children continue to be raised in supportive communities by thoughtful, attentive parents; but looming larger is the overall drift, in both government policy and private adult choices, towards blighting youngsters and stunting their potential. An anti-child spirit is loose in these lands.
In contrast, the negative trends have not extended to continental Europe — or to Japan, for that matter. In the traditionally Catholic countries of southern Europe, families and communities have remained strong enough to continue to provide a supportive environment for raising children, despite some slippage over the last decade. And in the welfare states of Scandinavia, comprehensive and aggressive social policies have compensated for family disintegration and created conditions that allow children to flourish. What these nations share is a wider and deeper vision of collective responsibility for children.
Child poverty in rich nations: Where taxes and transfers help the least
The UK and the US have the highest child poverty rates among the eight industrialized countries shown below — 27.9% and 22.3% respectively of their children 17 years or younger live below 40% of the adjusted median family income, according to 1986 figures. France also has a high child poverty rate — 21.2%, according to 1984 data. However, while France and the other continental European countries reduce their child poverty rates significantly through taxes and transfers, in the US the rate goes down only 1.9% to 20.4% after families receive all forms of cash income plus food stamps and other benefits and pay their taxes (if any). Direct comparison of income and poverty across a wide range of countries was made possible by the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) database.
Poverty rates measured as percentages of children living below 40% of the adjusted median family income in each country.
*The ratio of the US poverty line for a three-person family to the adjusted median income was 40.7% in 1986. Thus, the 40% line is close to the official US poverty line.
**Includes all forms of cash income plus food stamps and similar benefits in other nations, minus federal income and payroll taxes.
Income is adjusted using the US poverty line equivalence scale.
Source: Timothy M. Smeeding, ‘The War on Poverty: What Worked?’ Testimony to the Joint Economic Committee, the United States Congress, 25 September 1991.