Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick … where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears. –William Faulkner, 1932
Infants process a great deal of information through mechanisms involving procedural memory and begin to assemble their repertoire of survival-based learning long before conscious memory is developed. — Robert Scaer, 2005
Child poverty is a form of child abuse perpetrated by society as a whole on its most vulnerable, helpless members, and its effects are permanent and devastating. After reviewing some newly released data on child poverty in America, this essay discusses some of the devastating impacts of child poverty on a personal level.
Even as mainstream economists tout macro-economic data showing the economy picking up steam, poverty in the U.S. remains stubbornly high, according to data released last week by the Census Bureau.
For the eleventh time in twelve years, poverty has worsened or gotten no better. The official poverty rate–which greatly understates actual poverty–remains at 15%, meaning that 46.5 million Americans are living on less than $18,300 for a family of three, including 21.8% of all children (16.1 million kids), 27.2% of African-Americans, 25.6% of Hispanics and more than 28% of people with disabilities.
That’s $6,000 a year per person, or $500 per month. Try living on that some time and then tell me, like that entitled billionaire boob Michael Bloomberg, that America’s poor aren’t really poor.
From 2000 to 2012, poverty increased overall by 3.7%, and by 5.6% among children, even as median income for non-elderly households fell from $64,843 to $57,353, a decline of $7,490, or 11.6%.
In 2012, more than one-third (34.6%) of all people living in poverty were children, including 37.9% of black children and 33.8% of Hispanic children. The poverty rate for families with children headed by single mothers was 40.9%, and of the 7.1 million families with children living in poverty, 4.1 million (57.7%) are headed by a single mother.
But nearly half of the poor—43.9% or 20.4 million Americans—live below one-half of the poverty line, or $9,150 for a family of three. Thus 6.6% of the total population lives in “deep poverty,” including 7.16 million children.
Also remaining stagnant last year at 106 million Americans was the number of those living in “near poverty,” below twice the poverty line—less than $36,600 for a family of three. This means that more than one in three Americans are either already poor or are living one catastrophe—a job loss or serious illness—away from poverty.
Personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution. — Carol Hanisch, 1969
It was, more than 50 years ago, a conservative, Catholic country, where contraceptives were rare, safe abortions and single mothers non-existent, but violent fathers and feckless young men abounded. The government spent little on social services. Pregnant and afraid, she took a live-in cleaning job at a local home for unwed mothers, where she cried more than she ever had or would again. Upon delivery, the child was taken away immediately, unheld by its mother, to the underfunded orphanage staffed by overworked Nuns that would be home for two years.
Poverty, regardless of its depth, along with the daily stresses that accompany it, is especially harmful to children, especially young ones. In fact, the earlier poverty strikes in the developmental process, the more deleterious and long-lasting its effects. Studies have shown that living in poverty impairs the cognitive development of children, leading to poorer academic performance, reduced income potential and shorter lives.
In other words, growing up poor–obviously through no fault of one’s own–virtually ensures that one will end up poor. This is true not only because of the familiar class power mechanisms deployed by capital like anti-labor laws and regressive fiscal policy, but because growing up in poverty itself causes developmental deficits–physical, emotional, cognitive and psychological–that lead to an adulthood spent in poverty as well.
Even before birth, babies whose mothers are poor are more likely to experience growth retardation in utero, inadequate neurobehavioral development, premature birth, low birth weight, and birth defects generally. Because infant mortality rates for the neonatal period are largely dependent on birth weight, poverty kills babies. Among those lbw babies who survive, at age 3 only 12% functioned at the normal cognitive level.
Poor children also have poorer health, and are 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer complications from appendicitis and bacterial meningitis. Their rate of acute illness is higher, and they have higher morbidity rates as a result of lack of medical coverage.
Perhaps most terrible of all is the effect of childhood poverty on cognitive and emotional development. Family income is powerfully correlated to IQ at age 5. Poor kids score significantly lower on tests of cognitive achievement and are 1.3 times more likely to have developmental delays or learning disabilities. As the number of years spent in poverty increases, so do the cognitive deficiencies experienced.
The emotional impacts can be even worse. Parents stuck in the grind of poverty experience extreme levels of daily stress, and often have little time or energy to spend interacting with their children in healthy and affirming ways. This is not to chastise parents living in poverty, but to state plainly the challenges they face.
Especially in the first year of life, lack of proper nurturing and bonding with a parent has especially devastating effects on the child’s emotional and psychological development, leading to myriad physical and mental problems that fundamentally alter the child’s potential for personal happiness or social success. That is why childhood poverty should be considered a crime against humanity.
At the age of 17, when I first read Faulkner’s description of a small child’s experiences in a Memphis orphanage, my memory did not recollect whether the orphanage I lived in was also of dark red brick, but I grasped, instinctively, the simple truth that learning begins at birth, and the lessons learned early become unalterable parts of us, for good or for ill.
Sometimes, when people find out that I spent my first two years in a foreign orphanage, they are surprised that I’m strongly Pro-Choice. Assuming that anyone ‘given up for adoption’ must be opposed to abortion, they ask ‘Aren’t you glad abortion wasn’t legal when and where you were born?’ And I answer that what I really wish is that I had been born in a society where being a single mom carried neither social stigma nor economic disadvantage. But I was born in a capitalist society, so those things were not true and I was warehoused for my first two years of life.
Because I still bear the scars of being among the poorest of the poor–in a very real way, part of me has never left the orphanage, nor forgotten the feelings of worthlessness that came with being an orphan–the struggle for true human equality, against poverty, and by extension against capitalism, is at the core of who I am as a human being.
Photo by Allan Grey released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.