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No Trump Towers For Poor Kids

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

The plight of impoverished children anywhere should evoke sympathy, exemplifying as it does the suffering of the innocent and defenseless. Poverty among children in a wealthy country like the United States, however, should summon shame and outrage as well. Unlike poor countries (sometimes run by leaders more interested in lining their pockets than anything else), what excuse does the United States have for its striking levels of child poverty? After all, it has the world’s 10th highest per capita income at $62,795 and an unrivaled gross domestic product (GDP) of $21.3 trillion. Despite that, in 2020, an estimated 11.9 million American kids — 16.2 percent of the total — live below the official poverty line, which is a paltry $25,701 for a family of four with two kids. Put another way, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, kids now constitute one-third of the 38.1 million Americans classified as poor and 70 percent of them have at least one working parent — so poverty can’t be chalked up to parental indolence.

Yes, the proportion of kids living below the poverty line has zigzagged down from 22 percent when the country was being ravaged by the Great Recession of 2008-2009 and was even higher in prior decades, but no one should crack open the champagne bottles just yet. The relevant standard ought to be how the United States compares to other wealthy countries. The answer: badly. It has the 11th highest child poverty rate of the 42 industrialized countries tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Winnow that list down to European Union states and Canada, omitting low and middle-income countries, and our child poverty rate ranks above only Spain’s. Use the poverty threshold of the OECD — 50 percent of a country’s median income ($63,178 for the United States) — and the American child poverty rate leaps to 20 percent.

The United States certainly doesn’t lack the means to drive child poverty down or perhaps even eliminate it. Many countries on that shorter OECD list have lower per-capita incomes and substantially smaller GDPs yet (as a UNICEF report makes clear) have done far better by their kids. Our high child-poverty rate stems from politics, not economics — government policies that, since the 1980s, have reduced public investment as a proportion of GDP in infrastructure, public education, and poverty reduction.  These were, of course, the same years when a belief that “big government” was an obstacle to advancement took ever-deeper hold, especially in the Republican Party.  Today, Washington allocates only 9 percent of its federal budget to children, poor or not. That compares to a third for Americans over 65, up from 22 percent in 1971. If you want a single fact that sums up where we are now, inflation-adjusted per-capita spending on kids living in the poorest families has barely budged compared to 30 years ago whereas the corresponding figure for the elderly has doubled.

The conservative response to all this remains predictable: you can’t solve complex social problems like child poverty by throwing money at them. Besides, government antipoverty programs only foster dependence and create bloated bureaucracies without solving the problem. It matters little that the actual successes of American social programs prove this claim to be flat-out false. Before getting to that, however, let’s take a snapshot of child poverty in America.

Sizing Up the Problem

Defining poverty may sound straightforward, but it’s not. The government’s annual Official Poverty Measure (OPM), developed in the 1960s, establishes poverty lines by taking into account family size, multiplying the 1963 cost for a minimum food budget by three while factoring in changes in the Consumer Price Index, and comparing the result to family income. In 2018, a family with a single adult and one child was considered poor with an income below $17,308 ($20,2012 for two adults and one child, $25,465 for two adults and two children, and so on). According to the OPM, 11.8 percent of all Americans were poor that year.

By contrast, the Supplementary Poverty Measure (SPM), published yearly since 2011, builds on the OPM but provides a more nuanced calculus. It counts the post-tax income of families, but also cash flows from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC), both of which help low-income households. It adds in government-provided assistance through, say, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Medicaid, subsidies for housing and utilities, and unemployment and disability insurance. However, it deducts costs like child care, child-support payments, and out-of-pocket medical expenses. According to the SPM, the 2018 national poverty rate was 12.8 percent.

Of course, neither of these poverty calculations can tell us how children are actually faring. Put simply, they’re faring worse. In 2018, 16.2 percent of Americans under 18 lived in families with incomes below the SPM line. And that’s not the worst of it. A 2019 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study commissioned by Congress found that 9 percent of poor children belong to families in “deep poverty” (incomes that are less than 50 percent of the SPM). But 36 percent of all American children live in poor or “near poor” families, those with incomes within 150 percent of the poverty line.

Child poverty also varies by race — a lot. The rate for black children is 17.8 percent; for Hispanic kids, 21.7 percent; for their white counterparts, 7.9 percent. Worse, more than half of all black and Hispanic kids live in “near poor” families compared to less than a quarter of white children. Combine age and race and you’ll see another difference, especially for children under five, a population with an overall 2017 poverty rate of 19.2 percent.  Break those under-fives down by race, however, and here’s what you find: white kids at 15.9 percent, Hispanic kids at an eye-opening 25.8 percent, and their black peers at a staggering 32.9 .

Location matters, too. The child poverty rate shifts by state and the differences are stark. North Dakota and Utah are at 9 percent, for instance, while New Mexico and Mississippi are at 27 percent and 28 percent. Nineteen states have rates of 20 percent or more. Check out a color-coded map of geographic variations in child poverty and you’ll see that rates in the South, Southwest, and parts of the Midwest are above the national average, while rural areas tend to have higher proportions of poor families than cities. According to the Department of Agriculture, in rural America, 22 percent of all children and 26 percent of those under five were poor in 2017.

Why Child Poverty Matters

Imagine, for a moment, this scenario: a 200-meter footrace in which the starting blocks of some competitors are placed 75 meters behind the others. Barring an Olympic-caliber runner, those who started way in front will naturally win. Now, think of that as an analogy for the predicament that American kids born in poverty face through no fault of their own. They may be smart and diligent, their parents may do their best to care for them, but they begin life with a huge handicap.

As a start, the nutrition of poor children will generally be inferior to that of other kids. No surprise there, but here’s what’s not common knowledge: a childhood nutritional deficit matters for years afterwards, possibly for life. Scientific research shows that, by age three, the quality of childrens’ diets is already shaping the development of critical parts of young brains like the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in ways that matter. That’s worth keeping in mind because four million American kids under age six were poor in 2018, as were close to half of those in families headed by single women.

Indeed, the process starts even earlier. Poor mothers may themselves have nutritional deficiencies that increase their risk of having babies with low birthweights.  That, in turn, can have long-term effects on children’s health, what level of education they reach, and their future incomes since the quality of nutrition affects brain sizeconcentration, and cognitive capacity. It also increases the chances of having learning disabilities and experiencing mental health problems.

Poor children are likely to be less healthy in other ways as well, for reasons that range from having a greater susceptibility to asthma to higher concentrations of lead in their blood. Moreover, poor families find it harder to get good health care. And add one more thing: in our zip-code-influenced public-school system, such children are likely to attend schools with far fewer resources than those in more affluent neighborhoods.

Our national opioid problem also affects the well-being of children in a striking fashion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2008 and 2012, a third of women in their childbearing years filled opioid-based medication prescriptions in pharmacies and an estimated 14 percent -22 percent of them were pregnant. The result: an alarming increase in the number of babies exposed to opioids in utero and experiencing withdrawal symptoms at birth, which is also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, in medical lingo. Its effects, a Penn State study found, include future increased sensitivity to pain and susceptibility to fevers and seizures. Between 2000 and 2014, the incidence of NAS increased by a multiple of four. In 2014, 34,000 babies were born with NAS, which, as a CDC report put it, “is equivalent to one baby suffering from opioid withdrawal born approximately every 15 minutes.” (Given the ongoing opioid crisis, it’s unlikely that things have improved in recent years.)

And the complications attributable to NAS don’t stop with birth. Though the research remains at an early stage — the opioid crisis only began in the early 1990s — it suggests that the ill effects of NAS extend well beyond infancy and include impaired cognitive and motor skills, respiratory ailments, learning disabilities, difficulty maintaining intellectual focus, and behavioral traits that make productive interaction with others harder.

At this point, you won’t be surprised to learn that NAS and child poverty are connected. Prescription opioid use rates are much higher for women on Medicaid, who are more likely to be poor than those with private insurance. Moreover, the abuse of, and overdose deaths from, opioids (whether obtained through prescriptions or illegally) have been far more widespread among the poor.

Combine all of this and here’s the picture: from the months before birth on, poverty diminishes opportunity, capacity, and agency and its consequences reach into adulthood. While that rigged footrace of mine was imaginary, child poverty certainly does ensure a future-rigged society. The good news (though not in Donald Trump’s America): the race to a half-decent life (or better) doesn’t have to be rigged.

It Needn’t Be this Way (But Will Be as Long as Trump Is President)

Can children born into poverty defy the odds, realize their potential, and lead fulfilling lives? Conservatives will point to stories of people who cleared all the obstacles created by child poverty as proof that the real solution is hard work. But let’s be clear: poor children shouldn’t have to find themselves on a tilted playing field from the first moments of their lives. Individual success stories aside, Americans raised in poor families do markedly less well compared to those from middle class or affluent homes — and it doesn’t matter whether you choose college attendance, employment rates, or future household income as your measure. And the longer they live in poverty the worse the odds that they’ll escape it in adulthood; for one thing, they’re far less likely to finish high school or attend college than their more fortunate peers.

Conversely, as Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have shown, kids’ life prospects improve when parents with low incomes are given the financial wherewithal to move to neighborhoods with higher social-mobility rates (thanks to better schools and services, including health care). As in that imaginary footrace, the starting point matters. But here the news is grim. The Social Progress Index places the United States 75th out of 149 countries in “access to quality education” and 70th in “access to quality health care” and poor kids are, of course, at a particular disadvantage.

Yet childhood circumstances can be (and have been) changed — and the sorts of government programs that conservatives love to savage have helped enormously in that process. Child poverty plunged from 28 percent in 1967 to 15.6 percent in 2016 in significant part due to programs like Medicaid and the Food Stamp Act started in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Such programs helped poor families pay for housing, food, child care, and medical expenses, as did later tax legislation like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. Our own history and that of other wealthy countries show that child poverty is anything but an unalterable reality. The record also shows that changing it requires mobilizing funds of the sort now being wasted on ventures like America’s multitrillion-dollar forever wars.

Certainly, an increase in jobs and earnings can reduce child poverty. Wall Street Journal odes to Donald Trump’s tax cuts and deregulation policies highlight the present 3.5 percent unemployment rate (the lowest in 60 years), a surge in new jobs, and wage growth at all levels, notably for workers with low incomes who lack college degrees. This storyline, however, omits important realities. Programs that reduce child poverty help even in years when poor or near-poor parents gain and, of course, are critical in bad times, since sooner or later booming job markets also bust. Furthermore, the magic that Trump fans tout occurred at a moment when many state and city governments were mandating increases in the minimum wage. Employers who hired, especially in heavily populated states like California, New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan, had to pay more.

As for cutting child poverty, it hasn’t exactly been a presidential priority in the Trump years — not like the drive to pass a $1.5 trillion corporate and individual income tax cut whose gains flowed mainly to the richest Americans, while inflating the budget deficit to $1 trillion in 2019, according to the Treasury Department. Then there’s that “impenetrable, powerful, beautiful wall.” Its estimated price ranges from $21 billion to $70 billion, excluding maintenance. And don’t forget the proposed extra $33 billion in military spending for this fiscal year alone, part of President Trump’s plan to boost such spending by $683 billion over the next decade.

As for poor kids and their parents, the president and congressional Republicans are beginning to slash an array of programs ranging from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program to Medicaid — $1.2 trillion worth over the next 10 years — that have long helped struggling families and children in particular get by. The Trump administration has, for good measure, rewritten the eligibility rules for such programs in order to lower the number of people who qualify.

The supposed goal: to cut costs by reducing dependence on government. (Never mind the subsidies and tax loopholes Trump’s crew has created for corporations and the super wealthy, which add up to many billions of dollars in spending and lost revenue.) These supposedly work-ethic-driven austerity policies batter working families with young kids that, for example, desperately need childcare, which can take a big bite out of paychecks: 10 percent or more for all households with kids, but half in the case of poor families.  Add to that the cost of unsubsidized housing. Median monthly rent increased by nearly a third between 2001 and 2015. Put another way, rents consume more than half the income of the bottom 20 percent of Americans, according to the Federal Reserve. The advent of Trump has also made the struggle of low-income families with healthcare bills even harder. The number of kids without health insurance jumped by 425,000 between 2017 and 2018 when, according to the Census Bureau, 4.3 million children lacked coverage.

Even before Donald Trump’s election, only one-sixth of eligible families with kids received assistance for childcare and a paltry one-fifth got housing subsidies. Yet his administration arrived prepared to put programs that helped some of them pay for housing and childcare on the chopping block. No point in such families looking to him for a hand in the future. He won’t be building any Trump Towers for them. 

Whatever “Make America Great Again” may mean, it certainly doesn’t involve helping America’s poor kids. As long as Donald Trump oversees their race into life, they’ll find themselves ever farther from the starting line. 

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book is The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

Copyright 2020 Rajan Menon

Is ‘Ban The Box’ Doing More Harm Than Good?

The United States leads the world in many categories that evoke pride and one that should not: We lock people up at a higher rate than any other country. We also have a lot of ex-offenders who have a hard time finding legitimate work. And an ex-offender with no job and no money is a crime waiting to happen.

But a few years back, we came up with a remedy for that problem: forbidding employers from asking applicants about their criminal records at the start of the hiring process. Only after candidates have been found qualified and offered interviews may the employer request this information.

Illinois and dozens of other states have enacted “ban the box” laws to improve the job prospects of correctional alumni. (The term refers to the square you check if you have a criminal record.) In December, President Donald Trump signed a measure imposing a similar rule on federal agencies and contractors. These laws are particularly relevant to black men, who have far higher rates of imprisonment than other men — and higher unemployment rates.

Even in today’s hot job market, African American men from age 20 to 34 are twice as likely to be out of work as their white peers. Ex-offenders are typically five times likelier to be unemployed than other people. Their neighbors would be safer if those ex-offenders could find steady jobs that would divert them from felonious activity.

Banning the box was a plausible reform. “This law will help ensure that people across Illinois get a fair shot to reach their full potential through their skills and qualifications, rather than past history,” said Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn when he signed the bill in 2014. The assumption was that if ex-offenders could clear the initial screen, employers would be more likely to excuse their past transgressions.

But all these changes in state laws didn’t account for a powerful and immutable law: the law of unintended consequences. The evidence about banning the box is piling up, and it’s not pretty. Instead of helping ex-offenders and black men, they have backfired on both.

Last year, Jennifer Doleac, an economics professor at Texas A&M who is affiliated with the University of Chicago Crime Lab, gave written testimony to a U.S. House committee on these laws. Her conclusions were sobering.

“Current evidence suggests that Ban the Box may not increase employment for people with criminal records, and might even reduce it,” she said. “Delaying information about job applicants’ criminal histories leads employers to statistically discriminate against groups that are more likely to have a recent conviction.” In a triumph of perversity, the people who were supposed to gain ended up worse off.

The latest evidence, assembled by University of California, Santa Barbara, economist Ryan Sherrard, confirms the detrimental consequences. After such a law is passed, his study found, African American men get fewer job callbacks — and white applicants get more. In places that “ban the box,” black ex-offenders are likelier to end up back in jail than before.

The reasons for these unwanted results are not hard to guess. When employers can’t find out whether applicants have criminal histories, they don’t assume the best about black men; they assume the worst.

An employer who would hire an unskilled young African American man who has never been in trouble, but not one with a rap sheet, can no longer tell one from the other until late in the process. The applicant with a spotless record has no way to distinguish himself from the onetime Gangster Disciple.

So hiring managers may decide to avoid the hassle by not considering many, or any, young black men. Under “ban the box” laws, employers seem to develop a greater preference for white candidates.

This effect works to the disadvantage of African Americans who haven’t been in trouble with the cops. It’s also no favor to those who have. Sherrard thinks the increase in recidivism may stem from the discouragement that arises when an ex-offender gets a callback and an interview, only to then be rejected because of his past. Raising false hopes is corrosive.

Doleac offers a few alternatives to make it easier for former inmates to get jobs, including education and training to improve their skills, authorizing judges to issue them certificates of work readiness and giving employers legal protection if such employees commit crimes on the job.

But the priority should be to repeal these laws, which have hindered the people they were meant to help. Sometimes the best way to do good is to stop doing harm.

Steve Chapman blogs at Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Why A New York Times Columnist Says 2019 Was ‘Best Year Ever’

Reprinted with permission from Alternet

2019 will be remembered for developments in a long list of disturbing events and trends, including climate change, white nationalist terrorism in the United States, and far-right authoritarianism embodied by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

Regardless, New York Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristof remains an optimist, asserting in his column that 2019 had a lot of positive trends and developments to go with the bad. He provocatively titled the op-ed, unironically, “This Has Been the Best Year Ever.”

Those who are “depressed by the state of the world,” Kristof asserts, should consider that “2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.”

Moreover, Kristof adds, “Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.”

In 1950, Kristof notes, “27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now, that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.”

Kristof goes on to cite some troubling events, writing, “But … but … but President Trump! But climate change! War in Yemen! Starvation in Venezuela! Risk of nuclear war with North Korea. All those are important concerns, and that’s why I write about them regularly. Yet I fear that the news media and the humanitarian world focus so relentlessly on the bad news that we leave the public believing that every trend is going in the wrong direction.”

Other positive trends, according to Kristof: more literacy around the world, and diseases that claimed countless victims in the past have been declining.

“Diseases like polio, leprosy, river blindness and elephantiasis are on the decline, and global efforts have turned the tide on AIDS,” Kristof explains. “A half century ago, a majority of the world’s people had always been illiterate; now, we are approaching 90 percent adult literacy.”

Being optimistic, Kristof stresses, doesn’t mean ignoring major problems like climate change, but too much emphasis on the negative can become self-defeating.

“I worry that deep pessimism about the state of the world is paralyzing rather than empowering,” Kristof warns. “Excessive pessimism can leave people feeling not just hopeless, but also, helpless.”

Trump’s New Homeless Czar Threatens The Destitute

Reprinted with permission from DCReport

Team Trump is sharpening its teeth on a new, nationwide crackdown on homelessness.

Though the details are not known, we do know a bit about Robert Marbut, who has been named essentially czar for homelessness for the White House. Marbut built a reputation for making the homeless earn admittance to shelters while clearing the streets to gather them in central holding facilities.

Marbut puts emphasis on an approach that is less about empathy and closer to the model we know as jail.

Formally, Marbut was named director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), a position that coordinates on homelessness policy among 19 federal agencies. His appointment was quickly condemned by housing advocates, including the national nonprofit Invisible People, which described Marbut’s past work as “real-life horror.”

Homeless policies are still cooking in the White House, but the details that have emerged suggest an approach heavier on law enforcement than empathy.

Marbut describes himself as wielding a “velvet hammer” toward homelessness to avoid coddling those on the street.

Criminalizing Homelessness

While whatever is emerging as homeless policies is still cooking in the White House, the details that have emerged suggest an approach heavier on law enforcement than empathy, and one generally described as an attack on funds for cities and states that are seen as places where homelessness is most visible.

For sure, homeless populations are growing in this nation–numbers of more than 1.4 million are said to be in various kinds of housing programs, with hundreds of thousands more living on the streets of major cities. Concern and frustration with homelessness as a problem crosses political boundaries, of course.

Donald Trump has been increasingly vocal recently in criticizing cities, particularly Los Angeles and San Francisco, for allowing homelessness to grow as opposed to looking directly into the economic and social causes for rising numbers finding themselves in the street. Trump apparently sees it as good politics to try to embarrass local Democratic officials rather than working to resolve the problems.

In other words, Trump wants to Do Something that makes it look as if homelessness is being contained rather than examine and treat the reasons for its growth. In medical terms, he wants the appearance of cancer going away without treating the disease.

More Money for Cops, Less for Housing

According to, advocates for homeless policy say that they expect an executive order on homelessness to assign new resources to police departments to remove homeless encampments and even strip housing funds from cities that choose to tolerate these encampments. While several approaches are being reviewed by the White House’s Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the preferred approach is aggressiveness on the streets over attempts to provide housing first.

Advocates say that the government is looking closely at ways to turn former correctional facilities and federal buildings into shelters, a controversial approach backed by  Marbut, who has said he sees “housing fourth” rather than “housing first.”

San Antonio Model

Citylab notes that Marbut’s career has been marked by controversy. Thirteen years ago, during his term as a San Antonio city council member, Marbut oversaw the development of a shelter model for the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents fled to Texas cities. The downtown facility named Haven for Hope—which calls itself a “transformational campus,” not a shelter—has been praised by state leaders and now accommodates 1,500 people as well as a wide range of services, 24 hours a day. Access to the 1,000 beds must be earned. People entering the shelter must sleep on mats in an outdoor courtyard and can only move inside after participating in services like job training, education and substance abuse counseling. Breaking rules like missing curfew can mean getting demoted back to the courtyard.

Marbut became a paid consultant for other cities. He once disguised himself as homeless to mix with the homeless in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Increasingly, U.S. cities have instead been trying to provide “housing first,” believing that having shelter is a first step toward stabilizing the lives of those on the street, particularly if children are involved. At the same time, they want to address jobs and medical, financial or substance abuse problems. While expensive, building shelters has proved more economical than public spending on emergency care, officials say.

Rising Numbers

But progress is slow, especially as numbers increase, the result of economic or opiate problems. After years of decline, the population has gone up during the Trump years.

Marbut has recommended that cities stop giving out food, criminalize sidewalk sleeping and force homeless residents who want services to move into city-operated facilities in large temporary structures. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has said housing for homeless residents should not be “a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’” Carson has moved to end some federal homelessness programs, including protections for transgenders.

Policing Street Activities

In an interview with Huffington Post, Marbut said it is too soon to know what he will recommend. “We’re going to be coming up with new ways to look at and address homelessness,” he said.

The White House Council of Economic Advisers said in a September paper that the “tolerability of sleeping on the street” is an important factor in the prevalence of homelessness in a given town, a factor that could be affected by “the policing of street activities.”

Trump wants to push cities to round up homeless people, having called encampments disgusting and dispatched federal officials to scout out empty facilities across the country to be used as shelters. Ben Carson toured a large Houston shelter last week and previously had looked at an empty federal building in California and an unused jail in Oregon.

Texas Tribune published a profile of Marbut that is worth reading, including his sense that feeding people enables homelessness.

We should remember that there is a pattern in the Trump approach to government to hide away societal problems to make the policies he pursues look better.

This issue is worth public debate.