Thank you, Bernie Sanders, for making child poverty an issue. No one else is.

Bernie Sanders demands a plan to end one of the worst “American exceptionalisms”: child/youth poverty. No one else cares.

“We have a moral responsibility to end childhood poverty in America,” says Democrat/socialist presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders attached an amendment to a Senate bill “calling on President Barack Obama to submit a five-year plan to reduce the childhood poverty rate in the United States, which is greater than in any other major country.”

Of course, the White House – which has vigorously (and rightly, in my view) supported spending $785 billion in 2015 to prevent poverty among senior citizens, and which has been vocal about blaming young people for all sorts of social problems that are pivotally connected to poverty – has issued no plan. Just a cliché-filled general statement highlighting the need for fathers in the home and “healthy children,” and the tiny, consultant-feeding My Brother’s Keeper initiative that mainly functions to give luminaries podium photo-ops to congratulate themselves.

In fact, as effective, inflation-adjusted Social Security payments continued to cut senior poverty during the Obama presidency, the number of persons under age 18 living in poverty rose by 600,000, and the child poverty rate from 19.0% in 2008 to 19.9% in 2013. Today, 4.7 million seniors live in poverty, compared to 14.7 million children and youth under age 18.

youthseniorpoverty
Source: US Census Bureau, Poverty trends, 1959-2013

Why? Since the early 1970s, we haven’t even tried to prevent child poverty. During the Obama administration, spending on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Social Security analog to prevent poverty among families with children, continued its long-term general decline and today is well below $40 billion.

Obama’s record is not as bad as during the Bush Jr. years (child poverty levels rose from 16.2% in 2000 to 19.0% in 2008), nor during the Reagan-Bush Sr. presidencies (18.3% in 1980, 22.3% in 1992). And the Clinton years did see reductions in poverty due to a booming economy and the fact that the harms caused by the Clinton-Gingrich de-federalization and cuts in assistance to families with children had not yet emerged then. But the trends still represent an appalling deterioration in children and youths’ well-being since the low point in their poverty levels in 1969 (14.0%) during a liberal presidency.

We know how to reduce poverty – as is done in virtually all other Western countries through unified social insurance programs. Poverty levels among Americans age 65 and older fell from 35.2% in 1969 to 25.3% in 1969 and 9.5% in 2013.

We also have a record of knowing how to prevent child and youth poverty. In 1959, the first year of tabulation, 27.2% of Americans under age 18 lived in poverty, a staggering rate that targeted anti-poverty, education, health, food, and housing programs (for all the lambasting they received in the post-Reagan era) cut in half just 10 years later.

Want to prevent teenaged motherhood? In 1958, 91 per 1,000 girls age 15-19 gave birth. By 1969, that rate had fallen by nearly 30 points, before anyone heard of sex versus abstinence education, legal abortion, or Plan B contraception. The reason? Poverty rates went down, and educational attainment went up dramatically among the young, particularly teenaged females.

Since the early 1990s, youth poverty rates have fallen only slightly (and risen again recently), but thanks to the strong initiative of Millennials against all efforts to price them out of higher education, educational attainment has risen among teenagers and young adults. Unlike the Sixties, rising educational attainment alone is driving the most recent reduction in births among teens in the absence of reduced youth poverty. This fascinating development will be examined in upcoming blog posts.

American children are just as deserving as senior citizens to live without battling debilitating poverty. But not in the eyes of leaders, Democrat or Republican. Sanders is doing a great service to publicize this neglected crisis. (Mike Males)