Revealing the devastating costs of childhood poverty

Jeff Madrick

THE WASHINGTON POST – In 1962, Michael Harrington published his groundbreaking exposé on poverty, The Other America, which helped to awaken the country to the scourge of poverty. Yet after six decades, the paradox of poverty amid plenty remains. This disturbing fact serves as the starting point for Jeff Madrick’s book Invisible Americans.

Like Harrington’s, Madrick’s goal was to reveal the conditions, causes and costs of poverty, specifically childhood poverty. His underlying assumption was that if we as a nation truly understood the tragic toll of child poverty, we would act decisively to alleviate it.

Madrick rightly pointed out that the United States (US) has the highest rates of child poverty and deprivation among the wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Why should this be? Although many possible reasons exist, one particularly powerful set of factors is that the nation has often viewed the poor as undeserving of assistance. This has taken many forms. One argument is that the poor do not work hard enough and/or have made bad decisions in life. A second is that the poor are caught in a “culture of poverty,” in which single parenthood and crime predominate. Yet another set of beliefs imagines most of the poor to be nonwhite and living off welfare. In all these cases, the poverty-stricken are disdained as undeserving of compassion or assistance. They are the ones responsible for their own fate and therefore must accept the consequences.

Madrick marshals a vast array of social scientific research to show that each of these beliefs is clearly incorrect. What then is the answer?

Madrick argued that the most straightforward and effective way to significantly reduce child poverty is through a cash allowance available to all children. The idea is similar to a universal basic income, a concept being discussed in progressive circles. Every child would be guaranteed an income that would be paid to their parents, perhaps USD300 to USD400 a month. Through such payments, Madrick argued, child poverty could be cut in half. Many Western industrialised countries have adopted similar policies, lowering their poverty rates as a result.

Overall, Invisible Americans does an excellent job pulling together and synthesising the latest research on the dynamics of child poverty in the US. It is a clarion call to address this most unjust blight upon the American landscape. Madrick provided a valuable service in presenting a highly readable and cogent argument for change.