Childhood Poverty: Breaking the Cycle


Poverty affects millions of children, but when we think about poverty, the children are the last images we conjure in our minds. 1 in 5 American children are poor; approximately 29 million.

When babies are born poor, they often stay poor. 1/2 of babies born into poverty will spend half of their childhood years in poverty. Not limited by race, poverty affects children across the racial spectrum. In fact, about 1 in 3 white children and 3 out of 4 black children are poor, yet more white children than black children are poor. Hispanic children are disproportionately affected by poverty.

When it comes to persistent poverty, about  5% of white children and 40% of black children experience persistent poverty, and for these numbers to reflect an American reality for both black and white families, it is awful and shameful of our governmental democracy to boast these numbers. We are touted as being the “land of plenty” and the “land of opportunity”, but are we living up to this reputation? The world is watching us, and paying close attention to what we do for our most vulnerable. Traditional “bootstraps” approaches are irrelevant for those who have no boots at all.

We must craft a new tradition; one beginning with protections for the children first, both black and white, and brown.  Educational opportunities and equitable access must be ensured and guaranteed, in order that children are equipped with ‘boots’ that that will help them break free from the bondage that is poverty.

Child poverty dims future academic success. Early poverty is linked to toxic stress, which can harm children’s brain development, lower IQ scores, and reduce academic achievement. Children who experience poverty between birth and age 2 are 30% less likely to graduate from high school than children who become poor later in childhood.

fenceBreaking the cycle of poverty is difficult and challenging, but it’s not impossible.

Strategies include:

  • Reaching poor children as early as the day they’re born. Since most children in the United States are born in hospitals, that’s a great place to start. Social workers could connect newborns and new moms to programs that can help them avoid the poverty trap, such as public health insurance, food assistance, and even home-visiting opportunities and parenting classes.
  • Ramping up educational opportunities for children and their parents. Getting children in Head Start and other school readiness programs prepares them for primary school. Additional funding for Early Head Start would expand the reach of educational and other supports for younger children and their families. And workforce programs that help parents gain skills, get jobs, and advance in the workplace can help the whole family.
  • Helping kids stay in the same schools when struggling families move. Poverty and housing instability are deeply connected, and a family move can disrupt a child’s education. Flexible policies that let kids stay in the same school when they move across school boundary lines could improve academic performance.
  • Enacting place-conscious strategies. We need policies that address neighborhood conditions and help poor families move out of disadvantaged neighborhoods to places with better schools and more opportunities.

We can break the cycle of poverty! It’s a choice, and it’s a necessity…in the best interest of families and children.


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