That Poverty Which is Deep: Recent Statistics on the Children of the Poor

Jeremy Brunger I Social Economics I Analysis I June 30th, 2015

Aristotle wrote in The Politics that "poverty is the parent of revolution and of crime." He was not writing in support of the poor and dispossessed, but rather argued in favor of keeping the poor in check. He might have gone on to recognize that there is poverty, and then there is deep poverty. The confluence of the negative effects of growing up in poverty, and around it, prove virtually boundless when explored by the sciences. Social science and neurology suggests a profoundly disturbing relationship between childhood development, the enduring lack of education to resources, chaos at home, and the cognitive limitations instilled into children who grow up knowing little else beyond urban decay or rural want. It is a problem little discussed in formal politics because formal politics is not for the poor; those unlucky enough to draw the long straws in the lottery of birth have no more advocacy than they have agency, and are often treated as so much disposable matter by the political and economic machinery only nominally designed to represent them. In previous eras the poor were collectively called the proletariat in the hope that they might recognize a common class interest and form a solidarity bloc without reference to their more ephemeral differences or frustrations. Now, in the age of neoliberalism, they are simply ignored-or worse yet, feared. Poverty has become at odds with the official culture, which prefers to demonize rather than to solve it. To be poor is to be associated with chaos, with unsustainability, with the eternal clash between law and outlaw. To be poor and a child comprises all of that with the possibility of a healthy, prosperous future removed from the cards almost entirely. What, then, does deep poverty look like when it falls below the age of majority?

According to a 2014 Stanford study on extreme poverty , 7.1 million children in the United States are living in deep poverty, which The Fiscal Times defines as those households " income of less than half the federal poverty threshold ." 7 million people is the population equivalent of the state of Tennessee- itself rife with the problem , with one fourth of its children living of poverty-or close to the population of the country of Finland. Deep poverty thus affects a sizable portion of the United States' children, most of whom live in families headed by single mothers, enough not only to constitute a great failure in public policy, but also a great cohort effect reproducing poverty for the children they will have once they become adults. Consider the graph below, sourced from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy, which details the variation in poverty levels from the year 1960 to the year 2013, roughly equivalent to two generations on a normal curve.

The variation in the level of deep poverty shows virtually no change-even hinting at a slight increase on the right tail-in the decades-long trend segment. Therefore, if evidence suggests that people do not often fall into that socioeconomic stratum, then it likewise suggests that neither do they manage to escape it. There is speculation as the cause of this stagnation: moral deficits might play a role according to conservatives, or structural injustices might play a role according to liberals. But the sheer descriptive fact ought to outrage any citizen, regardless of political bent; the existence of deep poverty in a country of heretofore unimagined plenitude ought to inspire not only disgust but also the outreach characteristic of American humanism. In an increasingly competitive and unpredictable economy, starting out at the bottom is the likeliest indicator of remaining there for life. What liberal scholars call the race to the bottom is, by all appearances, the necessary consequence of neoliberal capitalist economy. The relationship between people and poverty is, after all, one that hinges on business .

The United States leads the world in child poverty with the exception of three countries which lead it: Mexico, Chile, and Turkey. In other words, in regards to child poverty, the United States is right behind countries firmly considered to be part of the underdeveloped world . Such statistics rarely make the headlines or feature in our cultural productions-it is difficult to find popular cinema depicting such despair, or to find spaces of conversation in which such facts might make a splash. To talk of such things is taboo, to depict them bad investments. Unfortunately, deep poverty, and its correlate relative poverty, is a fact of life for many if not most of America's children, and there is no reputable forecast suggesting a decrease in this trend. Instead, it looks as though poverty will either stagnate, or increase, as the middle classes find themselves outsourced or out-competed once again, and the working poor continue on in their material misery. 1 in 3 American children live in some form of poverty: is this not the social class of the propertyless proletariat, reproduced over time? If long-term statistics from the National Center for Children in Poverty concerning life outcomes are accurate, then being born into poverty is the surest way to stay in it over the course of one's life. It is also important to note that, echoing the school-to-prison pipeline, poverty affects non-white Americans at a higher rate than white Americans. Historical racism has always leveraged supremacy on economic grounds-it is no surprise that such emergent effects arise from generations of impoverished families, school systems, and media representation. Deep poverty has historically been associated with the unreconstructed Gradgrindian South, but such trends have lately emerged in other parts of the country. It is a cynical idea, if perhaps a true one, that when poverty comes to characterize a white America devoid of myth, policy considerations might finally redirect toward the bottom line of the suffering majority.

In the meantime and in lieu of real policy transformations in the economic sphere, the age-old facet of Americana-the rags-to-riches myth-dissolves into so much platitude. These statistics reveal there is a second world within the first. In a society dominated by corporate insignia, capitalist desire, and overcrowded public schools fighting against the private sector for bare resources, the reality for many Americans is starkly different from that which we like to portray. Conservatives used to condemn the progressive cultural climate as contributing to "the Balkanization of America," by which philosophies and social theories were imported from the developing world and employed domestically; but this hardly registers insult when parts of America more resemble the Balkans than anything else the historic middle class recognizes as its own. Poverty is a structural crime and a moral indictment which charities and social services only ameliorate, and at that, just barely. With it comes all the attendant inability to understand the legal structure of American property relations, criminal law, the sociological tendency, and historical shifts in attitudes toward different subject-positions. To be in deep poverty is to be at once permanently adrift and permanently imprisoned in economic circumstance. Social division, and uproar, is the natural result of such ominous historical developments. Life is an uncanny hell for the deeply poor.

That, through mere happenstance, American children should be born into a despair already well prepared for them is not just a problem in the so-called "inner city," or in the rural hinterlands. It is everywhere: in suburbia, next to our centers of government, in the ghettos and the paradises of tourist-friendly America. In a society dominated by spectacles of wealth, it is to be expected that such spectacles exist to hide what is unsavory, yet necessarily produced by the structure of capitalist material economy; what is surprising is the very intensity of that horror which the spectacle denies. These statistics do not appear merely artifactual, or overly descriptive; they reveal an active, structurally-sourced, and by all accounts long-standing decline in the American way of life. When scoffing critics counter that American poverty is not of the same substance as poverty abroad, the sheer existence of 7.1 million children living in deep poverty in a country exhibiting the most flamboyant capitalism on Earth ought to convince those critics otherwise.


American Journal of Sociology (University of Chicago)

Brookings Institute


Federal Census

National Center for Children in Poverty

National Poverty Center


Stanford University

The Atlantic

The Fiscal Times

Times Free Press


University of New Hampshire

Urban Child Institute

Washington Post