Why Poverty Affects Us All


One in every five children in America lives in poverty. That child may be hungry, and he may not know where his next meal is coming from. That child may be homeless, living with relatives, or living without utilities. That child may not have rain boots or a warm coat. That child may live in your city.

In fact, here in Rhode Island, the statistics are consistent: in 2014, 19.8% of all kids, just under one in five, were growing up in poverty. According to RI KidsCount, 40% (84,008) of the Ocean State’s children were low-income, which means their families had incomes below 200% of the federal poverty threshold.

The 2014 federal poverty threshold was set at an annual income of $19,073 for a family of three with two children and $24,008 for a family of four with two children. Considering that average rent in the U.S. is over $900 per month, or $10,800 per year, there is not a lot of money left over for transportation, utilities, food, and clothing.

How do we compare to other states? Rhode Island ranks 26th in the nation – and last in New England – for the percentage of children living in poverty. We can – and we must – look out for our youngest residents. Programs like RIDE’s Summer Food Service Program help, but that is only a piece of the puzzle.

Last September, I wrote about the connection between affordable housing and strong schools. In Providence, according to RentJungle, the average rent is $1,242 per month. Back in 2012, GoLocalProv reported that a cost of living study showed that rent in RI is too high – and rent has not dropped since then.

Research has shown that affordable housing affects education in many ways, among them by reducing the number of times a family moves, by removing sources of environmental stress, and by increasing parental spending on child enrichment activities. Strong, stable communities tend to have stronger, more stable schools. But making housing more affordable for our poorest families is only part of the answer.

According to Annie E. Casey Foundation President Patrick McCarthy, improving outcomes for children living in poverty will require several social and economic measures such as tax credits, food stamps, and job training for parents. Policies that promote family-friendly workplaces would also help to support families struggling to make ends meet.

A report released by UNICEF last year found that over 76 million children live in poverty in the 41 most affluent countries in the world. As a result of the recession, many more children slipped into poverty, and many countries responded by increasing benefits such as child care subsidies, tax credits, and extended paid parental leave. The report noted that, of all newly poor children in the OECD and/or EU, about one third live in the U.S.

We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. We pride ourselves on being a leader and a model of democracy. However, as I wrote last week, we have some of the least family-friendly policies of any developed nation. When some of our own citizens find it easier to raise children as expatriates living in other countries than it is to raise them here at home, we have a serious problem.

Research shows that poverty has a significant impact on school performance. We know that income is more important than race in predicting the achievement gap politicians often rail against. A recent study also showed that poverty actually negatively affects a child’s developing brain. Ensuring that children growing up in our poorest families will have the same chance to succeed as their wealthier counterparts is critical to our country’s future. Poverty affects us all.

This post was also published at GoLocalProv.

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