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General News    H3'ed 2/3/20

Tomgram: Rajan Menon, No Trump Towers for Poor Kids

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Formerly a pitchman for Pizza Hut and McDonald's, he became president while eating KFC chicken and later served Wendy's burgers to the Clemson Tigers, the national championship football team. (The board chairman of Wendy's had contributed handsomely to his 2016 campaign.) So, honestly, how could it harm kids -- poor kids, to be specific -- to eat pizza and hamburger instead of a bunch of namby-pamby "vegetables" and "fruit" of the sort championed by the school nutrition standards Michelle Obama once sponsored? No wonder the Trump Department of Agriculture rolled out its new version of those standards for school breakfasts, lunches, and snacks on the former first lady's birthday (to the cheers of food companies).

Hey, how about mushroom pizza? Don't tell me that a mushroom isn't a vegetable or that the tomato sauce on that pizza or the onion on that hamburger doesn't qualify as healthier than hell! And they have the added advantage of being considered "more cost-efficient foods," which, in translation, means that they lack nutrition. For the presidential deal-maker of the century (if not all eternity), what a deal this turns out to be: food companies get more, while children get less -- and yet, given the foods we're talking about, are likely to become fatter eating them!

And childhood obesity? Much overrated as a crisis, right? After all, only 14 million American schoolchildren are considered obese at the moment. And keep in mind that, of the 30 million children who eat school meals daily, about 20 million of them are "low-income" (think: poor) and may get "more than half of their daily calories" from those meals.

Honestly, if this doesn't sum up the Trump era so far, what does? With that in mind, let TomDispatch regular Rajan Menon take you through the grim American world of child poverty that the president and his crew, including Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, are going to make worse, even as they put more dollars in the hands of food companies (and the truly wealthy more generally). It's a story for the ages, a genuine tale from hell. Tom

The Shame of Child Poverty in the Age of Trump
Billionaires Are Soaring, Poor Kids Are Losing More
By Rajan Menon

The plight of impoverished children anywhere should evoke sympathy, exemplifying as it does the suffering of the innocent and defenseless. Poverty among children in a wealthy country like the United States, however, should summon shame and outrage as well. Unlike poor countries (sometimes run by leaders more interested in lining their pockets than anything else), what excuse does the United States have for its striking levels of child poverty? After all, it has the world's 10th highest per capita income at $62,795 and an unrivalled gross domestic product (GDP) of $21.3 trillion. Despite that, in 2020, an estimated 11.9 million American kids -- 16.2% of the total -- live below the official poverty line, which is a paltry $25,701 for a family of four with two kids. Put another way, according to the Children's Defense Fund, kids now constitute one-third of the 38.1 million Americans classified as poor and 70% of them have at least one working parent -- so poverty can't be chalked up to parental indolence.

Yes, the proportion of kids living below the poverty line has zigzagged down from 22% when the country was being ravaged by the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and was even higher in prior decades, but no one should crack open the champagne bottles just yet. The relevant standard ought to be how the United States compares to other wealthy countries. The answer: badly. It has the 11th highest child poverty rate of the 42 industrialized countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Winnow that list down to European Union states and Canada, omitting low and middle-income countries, and our child poverty rate ranks above only Spain's. Use the poverty threshold of the OECD -- 50% of a country's median income ($63,178 for the United States) -- and the American child poverty rate leaps to 20%.

The United States certainly doesn't lack the means to drive child poverty down or perhaps even eliminate it. Many countries on that shorter OECD list have lower per-capita incomes and substantially smaller GDPs yet (as a UNICEF report makes clear) have done far better by their kids. Our high child-poverty rate stems from politics, not economics -- government policies that, since the 1980s, have reduced public investment as a proportion of GDP in infrastructure, public education, and poverty reduction. These were, of course, the same years when a belief that "big government" was an obstacle to advancement took ever-deeper hold, especially in the Republican Party. Today, Washington allocates only 9% of its federal budget to children, poor or not. That compares to a third for Americans over 65, up from 22% in 1971. If you want a single fact that sums up where we are now, inflation-adjusted per-capita spending on kids living in the poorest families has barely budged compared to 30 years ago whereas the corresponding figure for the elderly has doubled.

The conservative response to all this remains predictable: you can't solve complex social problems like child poverty by throwing money at them. Besides, government antipoverty programs only foster dependence and create bloated bureaucracies without solving the problem. It matters little that the actual successes of American social programs prove this claim to be flat-out false. Before getting to that, however, let's take a snapshot of child poverty in America.

Sizing Up the Problem

Defining poverty may sound straightforward, but it's not. The government's annual Official Poverty Measure (OPM), developed in the 1960s, establishes poverty lines by taking into account family size, multiplying the 1963 cost for a minimum food budget by three while factoring in changes in the Consumer Price Index, and comparing the result to family income. In 2018, a family with a single adult and one child was considered poor with an income below $17,308 ($20,2012 for two adults and one child, $25,465 for two adults and two children, and so on). According to the OPM, 11.8% of all Americans were poor that year.

By contrast, the Supplementary Poverty Measure (SPM), published yearly since 2011, builds on the OPM but provides a more nuanced calculus. It counts the post-tax income of families, but also cash flows from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), both of which help low-income households. It adds in government-provided assistance through, say, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Medicaid, subsidies for housing and utilities, and unemployment and disability insurance. However, it deducts costs like child care, child-support payments, and out-of-pocket medical expenses. According to the SPM, the 2018 national poverty rate was 12.8%.

Of course, neither of these poverty calculations can tell us how children are actually faring. Put simply, they're faring worse. In 2018, 16.2% of Americans under 18 lived in families with incomes below the SPM line. And that's not the worst of it. A 2019 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study commissioned by Congress found that 9% of poor children belong to families in "deep poverty" (incomes that are less than 50% of the SPM). But 36% of all American children live in poor or "near poor" families, those with incomes within 150% of the poverty line.

Child poverty also varies by race -- a lot. The rate for black children is 17.8%; for Hispanic kids, 21.7%; for their white counterparts, 7.9%. Worse, more than half of all black and Hispanic kids live in "near poor" families compared to less than a quarter of white children. Combine age and race and you'll see another difference, especially for children under five, a population with an overall 2017 poverty rate of 19.2%. Break those under-fives down by race, however, and here's what you find: white kids at 15.9%, Hispanic kids at an eye-opening 25.8%, and their black peers at a staggering 32.9%.

Location matters, too. The child poverty rate shifts by state and the differences are stark. North Dakota and Utah are at 9%, for instance, while New Mexico and Mississippi are at 27% and 28%. Nineteen states have rates of 20% or more. Check out a color-coded map of geographic variations in child poverty and you'll see that rates in the South, Southwest, and parts of the Midwest are above the national average, while rural areas tend to have higher proportions of poor families than cities. According to the Department of Agriculture, in rural America, 22% of all children and 26% of those under five were poor in 2017.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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