In 1995 Sandra Bullock starred in the hopelessly romantic comedy, “While You Were Sleeping.” Bullock plays a Chicago Transit token taker who is smitten with Peter Callaghan, a handsome commuter, though they are strangers. On Christmas Day, she rescues Peter from the oncoming Chicago “L” train after muggers push him onto the tracks. She accompanies the comatose Peter to the hospital, where a nurse overhears her musing aloud, “I was going to marry him.” Misinterpreting, the nurse tells his family that she is his fiancée. While Peter remains comatose an entire movie plays out.In 1996 there was a significant debate between the political parties about the nation’s welfare system. President Bill Clinton signed a bipartisan bill tightening the rules around welfare eligibility making many benefits conditional on work. The mainstays of the Democratic Party predicted a dire result that would result in child poverty increasing. The mainstays of the Republican Party opined that the legislation did not go far enough and the result would be expanding welfare roles and an increase in child poverty.
The legislation was enacted, the programs and requirements have been modified, adjusted, cancelled, restored, and more. But what happened to child poverty in the United States? I think that as a nation we have been a bit like Peter in “While You Were Sleeping.”
Jason DeParle wrote of the period before 1996: “For a generation or more, America’s high levels of child poverty set it apart from other rich nations, leaving millions of young people lacking support as basic as food and shelter amid mounting evidence that early hardship leaves children poorer, sicker and less educated as adults.” And then came the legislation. “But with little public notice and accelerating speed, America’s children have become much less poor.”
Child’s Trend, a leading research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives of children and youth, has completed a study looking at the poverty rate among children over the past 55 years (since 1967).
What explains the drop? You can read the full report here. As you might expect, the results are complex, but one key finding was that lower unemployment rates, increases in single mothers’ labor force participation, and increases in state minimum wages explained about 1/3rd of the overall decline in child poverty. Also contributing was an increase in the share of children living in two-parent families. In addition there was a dramatic decline in teen birth rates which lead to steep decline in rates of deep poverty among children. There are other macro factors at play, but I wanted to point out these three, which point to the heart of Catholic Social Teaching (CST).
CST has always held that the most basic unit of society is not the individual, but the family. Much of CST has spoken about the dignity of labor in an of itself, but also as the basis upon which to support the family in its basic necessities. The same is true of just wages and many related topics.
The is far more complex that my few comments, but I thought you’d like to know.