Episode 24: Child Poverty in America: Investing in Our Future With the CUNY Graduate Center

Setting the Stage: Tackling Child Poverty with Passion

Karen Sander, kicks off this panel event in conjunction with the CUNY Graduate Center with a heartfelt call to address child poverty, recognizing it as a fundamental challenge affecting our entire society. She introduces an incredible lineup of experts, each with unique insights into the complexities of socioeconomic inequality and child poverty.

  • Moderator Carol Jenkins: A journalist, activist, author, and the host of the Invisible Americans podcast.
  • Janet Gornick: A professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, director of the Stone Center on socioeconomic inequality, and a passionate researcher in social welfare policies.
  • Kathy Edin: The William Church Osborn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and the author of "The Injustice of Place," among other poverty-focused books.
  • Regina Baker: An associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dedicating her research to understanding factors that shape socioeconomic conditions and disparities.
  • Zachary Parolin: Assistant professor of social policy at Boston University and a senior research fellow at Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy, focusing on measuring and addressing poverty.

Unveiling Narratives and Shaping Perspectives

Carol Jenkins, our moderator and host of The Invisible Americans Podcast, takes a moment to express gratitude to the panelists. She dives into the discussion, acknowledging the diversity of narratives and misconceptions surrounding child poverty. Carol highlights the need to understand the root causes of poverty, setting the stage for a thoughtful and informed conversation.

“We’ve been engaging for 300 years in America in an experiment. Our hypothesis is that if we shame the poor, if we make poverty as miserable as possible, we will have fewer poor people. And that hasn't worked out. So I do think this American narrative of behavior and morality, moralism, especially around race and family structure has sort of poisoned our ability to think about how to move our country forward.” - Kathy Edin

Advocating for a Holistic Perspective: Janet Gornick's Insights

Janet Gornick takes the floor, bringing her passion for social welfare policies to the forefront. She delves into various measures of poverty, urging us to adopt a multidimensional approach. Janet emphasizes the critical need to consider income, health, and structural indicators to truly understand the challenges. Based on her extensive research, she outlines five key areas where the nation must improve to reduce child poverty:

  • Providing more childcare and paid leave for women's employment security.
  • Strengthening labor market protections, including raising the minimum wage and empowering collective bargaining.
  • Increasing the generosity of income transfers, particularly targeting the most vulnerable families.
  • Reforming taxation policies to benefit the poor.
  • Helping families build wealth in both income and assets.

Janet also sheds light on the vital role public universities play in addressing poverty and promoting social mobility.

Unveiling Racism's Impact on Poverty: Regina Baker's Insights

Regina Baker, an associate professor with a commitment to understanding socioeconomic conditions, contributes valuable insights into the historical and structural roots of racism and how they impact poverty rates. She challenges the misconception that marriage alone is a solution, highlighting racial disparities in poverty rates.

Innovating Poverty Measurement and Recognizing Regional Patterns: Kathy Edin's Fresh Approach

Kathy Edin shares groundbreaking insights from her book, "The Injustice of Place," introducing a novel method for measuring poverty. Her approach considers income-based measures, cumulative indicators, and structural factors. Kathy emphasizes the importance of recognizing regional patterns of child poverty and understanding the impact of geographical location on children's well-being.


Spotlight on Intergenerational Consequences: Zachary Parolin's Call to Action

Zachary Parolin shifts the focus to the long-term consequences of growing up in poverty and the intergenerational persistence of this issue. He advocates for increased investments in ending child poverty, exploring both economic and moral justifications. Zachary delves into racial disparities in exposure to child poverty, emphasizing the lasting effects on individuals and society as a whole.

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Karen Sander

Welcome to the CUNY Graduate Center. I'm Karen Sander, the Director of Public Programs. We are so delighted to have you here tonight for this important event. As many of you know, the CUNY Graduate Center is a hub for graduate education for the CUNY system. We grant most of the doctorates and offer many master's programs as well. Since we are a public university, we are extremely focused on sharing knowledge with the public, and offer events like tonight's for you to engage and learn with us. We offer most of our programs in person and also online. So I welcome the many of you that are zooming in from around the world. We're happy to have you here with us tonight as well. 

So much of the research that our faculty and students undertake here at the CUNY Graduate Center focuses on ways we can solve the crucial issues of our time. The Stone Center for Socioeconomic Inequality, our co-sponsor for tonight, is one of the many centers at the Graduate Center that produces groundbreaking research and scholarship. We chose the topic of child poverty for this event for several reasons. It has been shown that child poverty is the root cause for so many other issues in our society. Problems like disparate outcomes in education, health disparities, incarceration, and many more. We have done many public events on these topics. And I encourage you to look at our video archive if you want to delve further into these issues that child poverty eventually leads to. 

It seems like we could solve this problem. If we solve this problem, it would eradicate these other problems. And one of the silver linings coming out of the pandemic was a decrease in child poverty due to the child tax credit, which gave families monies throughout the year instead of waiting to receive them as a tax credit when taxes were filed. A simple policy that worked, but unfortunately, was not renewed by Congress. So we were here tonight to delve further into the causes of the problems, and most importantly, the solutions. 

It is my great pleasure to introduce our really rockstar expert panel here who are going to guide us through this issue tonight. So starting down at the end, we have Dr. Regina Baker, who is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, and a faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Previously, she was an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Baker's research focuses on understanding the factors that shaped socio economic conditions and disparities across people and places. She is particularly interested in the role of institutional mechanisms in shaping individual outcomes and broader patterns of poverty and inequality, such as child poverty and racial disparities. 

Sitting next to her, Kathy Edin is William Church Osborn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. The author of nine books, Edin is widely recognized for using both quantitative research and direct in depth observations to illuminate key mysteries about poverty. Her most recent book, The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America, just came out in 2023. Next to her is Zachary Parolin, is an Assistant Professor of Social Policy at Bocconi University and a senior research fellow at Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy. 

He has published widely on topics related to the measurement sources and consequences of poverty, including his new book titled, Poverty in the Pandemic: Policy Lessons from COVID-19. His recent research has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, The Atlantic, CNN, in a US presidential debate, and in other outlets. Next up is Janet Gornick, is a professor of political science and sociology here at the CUNY Graduate Center, and she is the director of the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, our co-sponsor for tonight. 

She is an author or editor of four books and an extensive number of articles. Her research, which is mostly cross national, concerns social welfare policies and their impact on gender disparities in the labor market, income inequality and poverty. Recently, she co edited and contributed to a volume of the annals titled Single Parent Families and Public Policy: Evidence from High-Income Countries. 

And last is our moderator for tonight, one and only Carol Jenkins. She is a journalist, activist and author. While serving as president and CEO of the ERA Coalition Fund for Women's Equality. She testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, about the impoverishment of women and children in America. As a member of the coalition board, she continues to work for amending the Constitution as part of the solution, while singling out her outrage that children go hungry in one of the richest countries in the world. The Invisible Americans podcast that she co hosts exposes the persistent problems of child poverty. And she is also an Emmy winning television journalist, and currently hosts Black America on CUNY TV, now in its eighth season. So I turn it over to you, Carol.

Carol Jenkins  

Karen, thank you so much for all of the terrific programming that you present here at the Graduate Center. And we do have a rock star panel, I want you to know, I am somewhat new to the child poverty crisis. It was something that I had always wanted to do. We’re working on the Equal Rights Amendment, and we're a hundred years in that fight. And so I had always said to my colleagues in the ERA movement, as soon as we get this, I'm moving on to child poverty. And then when the hundredth year came along, and it seemed clear that we were not going to have it in the next five minutes. I said, Well, I'm with you still, but it's time to address the issue of child poverty. 

My partner in the podcast, Jeff Madrick, who could not be here tonight, sends his best wishes, he is watching from home. He wrote a book called Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Child Poverty. And it's the basis of the work that we do some 50 conversations that we've had this year, 25 podcasts, and we're doing three convenings. All in the effort of raising this issue in the minds of the population that exists in the United States of America so that we can actually get something done. 

It is my distinct pleasure to be with this esteemed panel. We've interviewed Kathy Edin, and we are pursuing Jack and Regina and Janet has been extremely, and the work that she does here at the Stone Center has been extremely helpful to the work that we do. So we're all very appreciative and glad to be in this company. So here as a former reporter, and being relatively impatient, I've said to the panelists, can we start with the solutions, your conclusions, and then work our way backward? So they have graciously agreed to do that. So ending child poverty in the United States of America, which is what we're talking about mostly. And Janet can give us the—how we fit into the rest of the world. But many people do not realize when we say child poverty, we're talking about nearly 13 million children in this country who get no attention, and who get very little help. And we know now what works. So we need to move on to those solutions. So we're going to start with Janet, to give us the perspective. Put us in context, what is your solution for this? 

Janet Gornick

Thank you so much. Thank you. And just to say again without—I hope it doesn't sound like an excessive love fest. But this is really an honor to be with this panel. And Carol, thank you so much. And the work that you and Jeff are doing to bring this out into the world is crucial. I think that Jeff is one of the first people who identifies as an economist who has actually noted that child poverty is really important. And with apologies to my many economist friends, though, that he's been a really, really crucial voice. So of course, we're sorry that he’s not here and delighted that you're here representing the two of you. 

Yes, I'm going to say just a little bit to put us in context. I've done a lot of work actually 30 some years now, looking at socio economic outcomes across countries. So I want to just give you a very quick portrait of what child poverty looks like in the United States compared to other rich countries. And then tell you very quickly mentioned five policy pathways that would—I think research has demonstrated—reduce the child poverty rates in this country. So let me just tell you, I recently did a study, this was just on the eve of COVID, where I looked at child poverty from many different angles comparing the United States to 18 other rich countries. So, here are a few numbers in the United States. This is I might just add using what we call a relative poverty rate. Basically, we compare people's household income to a portion of the median in their own country. And this is household income after we've accounted for taxation and transfers. So what people have at the end of the day. 

In the United States using this measure, just on the eve of COVID, all Americans the poverty rate was 17.3%. For children, it was 21.1%. And for children under the age of six, it was 24.5%. So our children are the most at risk for poverty. Looking across these other countries, compare that basically 25% of American children under the age of six in poverty. The second highest country in this group was Italy at 18%. That's six percentage points lower. That's huge. Another nine countries were between 10 and 18%. And the rest were in the single digits down to 4% in Finland. So what's the point of looking across countries that allows us to link poverty rates to institutions? The punchline is, in many decades of my work and lots of others, a huge body of research concludes that child poverty rates in the United States are highest and higher than in many other countries because as a result of a mix of policies and institutions that have created that poverty. 

There are policies and institutions that have created that poverty. I recently co edited a volume with a lot of international scholars, Regina and Zachary, Laurie Maldonado here, my co editor, we co edited a volume of the annals in which we search for policy lessons across countries. So let me not take too much time, but just tell you what we concluded. This is a group of almost 30 scholars. These are five things that would reduce poverty among children in this country based on many, many years of experience in other countries. We need more childcare and paid leave to secure women's employment. We need to strengthen labor market protections that put a floor under earnings. And that means raising the minimum wage and extending collective bargaining on those two indicators were dead last in the rich world. 

We need to increase the generosity of income transfers, you cannot make it in the labor market alone. In many, many cases, especially for families, and we need income transfers that are universal to build political support, but that also have an element of targeting on the most vulnerable families. We need to reform taxation so we're not impoverishing the poorest families who were paying a very regressive payroll tax. And we need to shore up policies that help—Oh my goodness, you want me to say that all over again? Sorry, I know I'm going over. And finally, we need to help families build wealth, because income matters, but assets also matter. And old policy institutions that helped build assets were performing poorly as well. We could do a lot better.

Carol Jenkins 

Great. Thank you, Janet. Regina.

Regina Baker

Everything that Janet said I agree with wholeheartedly. I think that policies are very important. Effective policies matter. Things like income supports, and support for childcare and things like that, that definitely makes a difference and we see it across nationally. But I want to take it a step further. Because when we think about child poverty and high poverty in the US. Oftentimes people are like, Okay, why is child poverty worse in the US, right? And single mothers is often— single motherhood is off family structure differences, is often attributed to that. And at the same vein, if you look at differences across race, and that's an area of mine, right? We see the same explanation being used. Oh, poverty is higher among black and Latino children because there's no higher single motherhood. 

And I think there is where I think it's important to think about and think about policies is that it's not all about individuals, right? Individuals matter, and their decisions matter. And they're not inconsequential. But we have to think about differences that we see. And why do we see these differences. And it's very important to contextualize these differences. And for me, I think, to have effective solutions to poverty and child poverty, we have to really understand the context, and understand the differences and why they exist in the first place. And for me, I think institutional mechanisms and historical mechanisms and understanding that if we don't put that on the forefront, and we don't really address those, then we're kind of you know, it's like a dog chasing its tail, right? So I think that's important. Understanding and contextualizing is very key to directly address these issues. 

Carol Jenkins 

Great, thank you. Kathryn.

Kathy Edin

Kathy, you can call me Kathy. Otherwise, you’re my mother and I'm in trouble.

Thank you so much for hosting this conversation. It's just wonderful to see how much energy you're putting into these issues. So we made a fundamental error in 1996. What we did is we began a process where we transferred our safety net from the bottom fifth of American families with children to the second fifth of American families with children. We slashed, need based welfare. We added the EITC, which of course, is only fully enacted when you're working full time full year, it only gets you out of poverty when you're working full time full year. And in that dramatic transformation, what we did is put all of our eggs in the basket of the low wage labor market, which after about 1999 got considerably more perilous for low income workers in general and mothers of children in particular. 

And so, what you see when you look at the poverty rate, especially the, you know that we can have the poverty rate wars here, the SPM the one that takes account of cost of living changes and things like the EITC. We see, since 2000, the story of poverty declining, but at the same time, we see a story of hardship increasing. So we have a record number of homeless children, as reported in their schools, and that number has been increasing steadily. Except, you know, I'm only talking through 1999 because I'm going to save the fun part of this for Zach. A little dip in that very, very good economic year of 2019, we see an increase in non mortgage debt among low income families with children, monotonic increase. We see an increase in housing burden among low income families with children, we see a dramatic increase in the number of families that are forced to sell plasma to survive. One of the main survival strategies we talked about in our book, $2.00 a Day. And I could go on and on. 

Now, there's been some good news with food insecurity, and so on. But what we see there is a dramatic increase during the great recession and an improvement only when you get a very, very tight labor market. So our children, first of all, even when poverty looks like  it's going down, our children are suffering. And part of that is because this transformation, this safety net created winners and losers. The winners are the full time full year workers, and the losers are everybody else. And so that's why you can see poverty going down, and hardship going up. That all changed with the pandemic, as I'm sure Zack will tell you when the numbers started going the same direction, but it's very interesting to see this complicated portrait. 

So as Janet said, and as Regina concurred, putting all of our eggs in the basket of the low wage labor market is disastrous. And children will suffer when we do that, even when the official numbers show progress. One other thing that we're not talking about, that is you can map child poverty by county. And you will see dramatic differences by region. The highest rates of child poverty are not in Chicago, they're not in New York, they're not in San Francisco. They're in the historic tobacco and cotton belts of the United States. They're in South Texas. They're in Appalachia, and they're in our Native nations. And these rates are many times higher in some cases, than for the nation as a whole. So any kind of solution to end child poverty must be a relentless new war on child poverty focused on the regions of greatest need. And Regina, you alluded to history. And of course, I could show you a map of enslavement, of the rate of enslaved persons in 1860. And I can show you today a map of child poverty. It's the same map. It is the same map, even the gradations by county are the same.

Carol Jenkins  

And we do want to talk more about your book, actually, totally shocking in many, many ways, and a lot there. But Zack, let's have you give us your solutions. And as you say, and we all realize we all learned so much during the pandemic.

Zachary Parolin

Thanks a lot. And Thanks, Kathy, for allowing me to talk about the good news, the temporary good news before it became bad news. But first, I want us to go back in time for a minute to the great recession or the financial collapse that happened around 2008, 2009. From about 2007, so pre crisis to the peak of that particular crisis, say 2011. The child poverty rate in the US climbed, I wrote it here, about 15% to 18%. So we saw a notable increase in child poverty during the Great Recession. Now, as the economy recovered over the subsequent decade, by 2019, we actually had a high child poverty rate but historically low, let's say, which for the US is still quite high. 

When the pandemic hit in April 2020, the unemployment rate spiked to about 19%. We might have expected that poverty and child poverty in particular was about to climb as well. But as probably most of you are familiar with the federal government stepped in in extraordinary ways, through a variety of policy experiments and demonstrated what is possible when Congress and the Federal government acts to attempt to reduce poverty. 

In 2020 we saw child poverty, not go up from the prior year, not stay the same, but decline. In 2021, it declined further to 5.1% the lowest child poverty rate on record in the US and that dates back to 1967. Now, the bad news, 2022, it rebounded in more than doubled from its prior year, basically returning back to pre crisis, pre COVID levels. So what happened in 2021? Well, a few things, but the most fundamental policy change that occurred that year was the expansion of what's called the Child Tax Credit, which in short, made this payment available, a monthly payment uniquely available to most families with children in the US, even if they were not working. And As Kathy said, that is a dramatic shift from the way that we've been treating parents with children over the two decades prior. So I just want to highlight a few facts of research evaluating this child tax credit that I've been a part of with colleagues at various institutions. And I'll summarize some of our findings, and maybe we will return to some of these later. 

The child tax credit, when it was expanded and provided to most families with children in the US, cut the monthly child poverty rate immediately by about a third. It contributed to the lowest annual child poverty rate on record in the US. It cut food hardship by around 25%, among low income families with children. We have evidence from credit and debit card data that increased families consumptions on things like childcare centers and food and children's clothing, no evidence that it increased spending on tobacco alcohol, for whatever that's worth. We have evidence that in 2021, the US went from having a child poverty rate twice that of Germany's to on par with Germany's in 2021. 

The American welfare state was reducing child poverty at a rate of Norway and Belgium temporarily in 2021, compared to being half as effective as Norway in the years prior. And we don't find any evidence of strong declines in employment among parents when that policy was enacted. That could be different in the long run. If this were made permanent, we can talk about how much we should care or not about some of that. But we find evidence that there were not many parents dropping out of the labor market as a result of this being in place. The policy worked, and then it ended, and child poverty went right back up. So I know tonight, we'll talk about what it takes to bring this back, how to pay for it, is it worth bringing it back. But this is what the evidence suggests occurred in 2021.

Carol Jenkins  

Right, well, thank you all for setting the stage for us. And I think that it was in September, when the census report came out, and showed what the dramatic increase in child poverty. And from our point of view, we were astonished that it was actually covered on MSNBC and CBS and other mainstream. It was in the New York Times, people were paying attention, what?  We have a problem of child poverty? At the expense of these millions of children who then, were on the brink of starvation again, and homelessness and all of that, and had a brief spurt of attention, and then subsided again. So somewhat out of order of questioning, I just want to ask you why you think that is, that this country refuses to pay attention to this issue, refuses to place enough pressure on the elected officials, as someone said to me, Celinda Lake has done the research and she said, America wants to feed its children. America is for this, but you have a few men stand in a cloak room in Washington, D.C., making these decisions and therefore millions of children starve. So why does this country—Regina, I'm gonna start with you—allow this to happen? 

Regina Baker

I think one simple reason is we see from other models from other countries, what can be done and what what has been done and what works. And I think that, unfortunately, at the end of the day, when you had mentioned, you have these, you know, who are making these decisions, right? Even though American by large, they think, okay, child poverty is an important issue to address. But who are the ones in charge? Who are the ones making the decisions? Right? And I think that part of it is, a lot of people in charge just don't have the political will to want to do it, also, I think it’s important, and if we've had issues like poverty or inequalities in general, there's that question of who's benefiting from the poverty? Who's benefiting from the inequalities? I think that's an important question as well, and you can all tie into thinking about power dynamics and things like that. But I think that's a big part of it. 

When you have people who are in office, and their main goal is to just be voted again, when the solution to something might be to go against what others might want you to do [INAUDIBLE] but I think that again, going into that political will thing as well. But yeah, I think that's a big part of the story and having people in charge who are so far removed from the situation themselves. I remember seeing a pie chart one time and it was showing the percentage of Congress who are millionaires or percentage you have. Their family background, and if that's their main thing, their mindset, if they're so far removed from the people who are actually impacted by poverty on a day to day, then the decisions aren't going to be good ones. 

Carol Jenkins  

Right, exactly. Anybody else want to jump in? Janet?

Janet Gornick

I'm not a scholar of public opinion. And I mean, there are people who actually study this with data, what people really believe, but I've been around a long time, I read a lot and I've listened to a lot of discussions. And I think a couple of things, Americans, I mean, this is a generalization, but it's really true, certainly relative to other countries, Americans are very skeptical of government. Government spending, public sector employment, any indicator of sort of a large government, despite the fact that of course, we know, we have very intrusive social policy, of course, in certain areas, but there's a kind of, relative to public opinion, in many European countries, there's a skepticism of public spending, we hear a lot of stuff against childcare, because we don't want the government raising our children and intruding on parental rights and all of those are, buzzwords for anti-government. 

I think Regina said something really important, which is also this perception that if I give money, taking care of other people's children, some of that is true in the sense that we have such a fragmented social policy system with a lot of means testing that goes back to the 1930s and earlier. So in fact, we do have poor children and not in the same systems that middle class and affluent children are in. Whereas in a lot of European countries, many of these programs are universal. Two very quick things to say, and I'm agreeing with all my colleagues, I'm sure we'll find some disagreement eventually. But you know, the child tax credit that Zach was talking about, we have that in most European countries, it's called something else. It's called a child allowance or a family allowance. That instrument that we were so shocked by in the United States. Everybody in the world in any other rich country knows that that reduces child poverty with the flick of a pen. Why don't we look abroad? Because we're American exceptionalism, we’re the city on the hill, we don't need to look abroad, which is a terrible mistake, because that's where all the policy lessons are. And one reason we don't look abroad is, as Regina said, is because we think poverty is rooted in individuals and not in institutions, and it all becomes very circular. So I think most Americans who did learn about the Child Tax Credit were astonished, and those of us in the field, forgive me, we're not at all astonished because we've seen the child tax credit in action for decades and decades in other countries.

Carol Jenkins  

And we should say, Jeff, who was not here was among the first as, as you've said, who believed that this was going to happen, and funded some of the research and people, I guess it was Luke Shaefer co author with Kathy, on Injustice of Place, who was told when he wrote, let's try this child tax credit was told, it's not going to work, it'll never happen. Kathy, do you wanna?

Kathy Edin

We’ve been embedding fieldworkers in these places of greatest need. So you know, the Cotton Belt, South Texas, tobacco belt, Central Appalachia, and these places are rife with big problems, corruption is higher in some of these places than anywhere in the country. Violence is at unprecedented levels in these places. And yet, when you ask community leaders what the biggest problem is, almost without exception, they say it's those poor people and how they behave. It’s just about race. But it's also about class, you see the same narrative, mostly the same narrative and central Appalachia, than you see in the Mississippi Delta. We’ve been engaging for 300 years in America in an experiment and the experiment. Our hypothesis is that if we shame the poor, if we make poverty as miserable as possible, we will have fewer poor people. And that hasn't worked out. So I do think this American narrative of behavior and morality, moralism, much of Regina's work speaks to this, especially around race, family structure has sort of poisoned our ability to think about how to move our country forward. 

Carol Jenkins  

Zach, you want to add to that?

Zachary Parolin

I'll just echo a couple points and expand a little bit. I really believe that to understand why the US has such a weak welfare state compared to other countries. We have to bring in racism into the discussion Kathy mentioned this Regina has done a lot of work on this as well, that if we go back to welfare reform and some of the dialogue about ending welfare as we know know it, in the media and political discourse, they were heavily racialized discussions and depictions of individuals receiving cash assistance from A to families with dependent children. You can look at survey evidence and see that racialized perceptions of who receives these benefits, even if they're false in terms of who's actually receiving the benefits, is a very strong predictor of someone's support for quote unquote, welfare, or not? 

Even when we talk about expanding the Child Tax Credit, we often go back in at least again, in media and political dialogues to some of these, again, false narratives about who's more likely to receive this, what if some types of groups are more likely to drop out of the labor market returning to the same conversations we've had, and you can see evidence of this even in modern day programs, so Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which is what we got out of welfare reform in the 1990s. If you look at the states that are giving much less on cash assistance, and much more to try to influence family structure, it's the states with a higher share of black residents, that racism is embedded into these policies, exacerbating racial differences in child poverty, actively today. So to understand why we have such a weak welfare state compared to other countries, I think my colleagues have shown in their work. And I think it's quite essential that we bring race and really racism into the discussion. 

Carol Jenkins  

Without question early in the podcast series, we interviewed Brian Greene, who runs the Houston Food Bank. They feed a million people, two thirds of whom are working at least one job, and most are working on two jobs. And what he said was that when he was a young man and started in that field, he thought, oh, we'll just get enough food, and we'll feed everybody. And the problem will be over. And he said, No, it just gets bigger and bigger, because we have not addressed the underlying socio economic issues of what these people who have to line up to feed their families food, are already working two jobs, sometimes three, and still cannot make ends meet. So that underlying—for the economists here—that underlying system, the structure that we exist in now, I mean, we can feed children, we can give them the child tax credit, but we don't do anything yet about what it is that is making their families poor, and not able to exist in a dignified way. So at the rock bottom of this, Regina, anybody have addressed that in terms of how and when we get to decent minimum wages and decent housing and the other things. We’ll do the taking care of them now, but how do we fix the problem?

Regina Baker

I just want to go back for once again, as I’m listening to my colleagues here, I realized we're all saying the same thing from a slightly different perspective. There’s a bit on the cultural issue in the question. There's a very strong narrative in the United States that one's children are one's own children. They’re yours to take care of. You had them, you feed them. Other people's children are other people's children. Racism is a big part of that story. Inequality is a big part of that story. We have an extremely—the United States is way beyond other countries in terms of having private schooling, private health care, gated communities at the top private transportation. 

My dear friend and colleague Nancy Folbre, great feminist economist, made this comment years ago that many people have borrowed, that Americans think of children as pets. You had them, you take care of them, they’re your concern. Children as pets. Americans think of children as pets, that you know, you had it, you feed it, you take care of it, you reap the joy, it's your private business. Whereas obviously overgeneralizing in other countries, especially in the social democratic countries, people think of children as public goods. Our children, of all of our children. And even in a practical sense, everyone's children, that's our labor market of the future. But this idea that and this has all been reinforced, I think on the right with this parental rights. 

We saw this in Virginia, a lot of it during COVID. Glenn Youngkin, won the governorship in Virginia on the program of do not tell any parent anything about their children. You can't tell them to wear a mask. You can't tell them to be vaccinated, you can't tell them to go to school. So this idea that our children are only our own concern, people seem to take pride in that in the United States, and it has a terrible—I don't think that that's the ultimate reason but it seems to have a terrible effect on our inability to embrace this as a national issue.

Carol Jenkins  

So it's a rethinking of the family and of the child because it's one thing to hold hate in your heart for someone who's not working, it's another thing to hold hate in your heart for the child who's not being fed. Just incredible. Regina, did you want to add to that?

Regina Baker

One thing I was thinking about just through everybody talking and thinking about why America is the way it is and thinking about individualism and meritocracy, and this idea that, if you just work hard, you work hard.Among some people, there's this feeling that, if you say, Okay, child poverty is an issue because there's some underlying structural problem or something systemic going on or discrimination happening, then that means that, okay, well, everybody doesn't have equal opportunity. And I think that's important, right? And by saying that, then they're saying, Okay, well, if everybody's have equal opportunity, that means that maybe some people are getting a leg up, or some people are privileged or whatnot. And I think that's an issue too. The fact that it's kind of countered to the whole idea of the American Dream that if you just work hard, you can make it. And I think that's an important thing to think about in this discussion as well.

Carol Jenkins  

I was intrigued by, as I was grabbing my water, but I was also intrigued by a paper that you wrote from the Stone Center with a headline, something like, are black women responsible for the child poverty problem? I don't have that quite right. But I know black women are accused of doing wonderful things, saving the democracy, etc. But now, we're accused of creating child poverty. Tell us a little bit about that paper on your surprise revelations. 

Regina Baker

The headline was like, “Are single mothers responsible for their poverty? For that paper, me and my colleague, Heather O'Connell, basically, we were interested in this idea about, it's all about family structure and marriage as being the solution to poverty. And we look at this by focusing on specifically the US South and we wanted to tie that into thinking about historical racism and structural racism as something to think about when we think about these issues not often talked about. And so basically, what we find, or what we do is we look at the legacy of slavery. So we're looking at the concentration of slavery across states at the state level, and we also do a separate county level. Basically, by saying a state has a high concentration of enslaved people to thinking about their ties to slavery and the historical racism. 

We are interested in how that concentration, how that impacted inequality and poverty among single mothers, and also among married households with children, and what we find is that living in the high concentration of slavery, we find that there is an impact, but we find that the impact is stronger among married black people. So essentially being in an area that had stronger ties with slavery, exacerbates poverty, for married households with children. And we think this is important, because there's so much rhetoric surrounding it’s all about single motherhood and if you just get these families married, or these women married, that'd be the solution. One thing that I often talk about as well is if it's all about single motherhood, then why do we see differences in poverty among married households with children? 

We see racial differences across groups around married people. So if marriage is the solution, why is this? Or in other work that I've done with my colleague Deadric Williams, we look at white mothers, Latino and Black mothers, and we look at their different risks to poverty. It could be a social risk, economic risk, are they employed, unemployed? Do they have health risks, social risks, thinking about incarceration and things like that. And basically, we find that in terms of thinking about number of risks. Prime example I think about is that a white single mother with three poverty risks is less likely to be poor than a black mother who's married and has zero poverty risk. 

I think studies like this are important because they essentially highlight the fact that it's not all about family structure, because if it was we wouldn't see the patterns that we see in that regard. And so I think that's important. You know, we think about these things thinking about context and history and things that matter because clearly they do and one last thing and another current paper I'm working on with David Brady and Ryan Finnigan, we find that we do these different models where we can say okay, if single motherhood were this rate, what would happen to the child poverty rate? And we do that looking across nationally as well as within the US and so for example, if single motherhood rates were zero in the US, the US would only fall from being the third worst in poverty among 30 year democracies to the sixth worse, and still would be bad, right? 

So then we're like okay, let's look at just the US and look at across race because the same reasons why we hear poverty is higher in the US it's the same reasons why we hear poverty is higher among certain groups. And we said okay, we change the single motherhood rate and in the case where single motherhood was zero, even though the child poverty rates might have decreased like a couple of percentage points across the board, we find that black and Latino children, the poverty rates are still double or triple white children, if single motherhood were zero, so again, just more evidence. 

Carol Jenkins  

We recommend that you go to the Stone Center for the full report, fascinating information.

Janet Gornick

Can I add one sentence to what she just said? I know we're all dying to say it just to underscore what Regina just said, we hear a lot about this, I always say if I had a nickel for every time I've heard in the United States, but don't we have high child poverty in this country because we have such a high rate of single mothers compared to other countries? And of course, you also hear the other nickel, I would like to have each time I heard it and it's an epidemic, single parenting is skyrocketing in this country. Those are both completely false. So the rate of single parenting or children's single parent families in the United States, compared to all these other countries with much lower child poverty is right in the middle of the pack, and it hasn't risen a bit in 30 years, it's come down. So those are two completely false narratives that Regina has done a good job putting the nail in that coffin, but not everybody's reading it. 

Carol Jenkins  

But the one thing, Janet in your study about women's earning power, also at the Stone Center, if you want to read this depressing news, and that is not just in this country, but in many countries that this idea of poverty is related to the fact that women still earn less than men do at low these many, many years. Do you want to briefly just say, and as I said to Janet in the report, then they nonchalantly say, it's not going to change, and I thought wait a minute.

Janet Gornick

First of all, just to say the issue. I mean, everybody is saying this, but the American labor market is very inhospitable to virtually anybody in the lower quarter of their earnings distribution. The American labor market is really failing a lot of families and their children. And it's not just a gender issue. But it's absolutely true that we also look at—I was mentioning those poverty numbers at the beginning, where we look at poverty based on income after taxes and transfers. But if we look at income transfers, and if we can do the same thing, which we all do is also look at the poverty rate of you know, before the tax and transfer just based on what people bring from the labor market. 

That type of poverty is also very high in the US for two reasons. One is that the Work and Family Policy is really poor and our women's employment rates are actually not good. It's not as much the earnings as the employment rates that are lagging. And they drop in and out when they have children because the supports for continuous employment are weak. So the labor market is failing, I should say, let me just say that both families, and that's true of both women and men is true in single parent families and uncoupled families, the labor market is failing American families and their children. That's why no matter how hard people work in this country, you worked full year full time, one or two parents with two children and you're still poor. That's why we need an income tax and a transfer system that supports it. So the labor market is really a lot at fault in this country. It's not just a question of poor redistribution.

Carol Jenkins  

I think it was one of the major papers that had a story about the new trend of people actually living in their cars. And one of the people they profiled was making, I think like $70,000, and still could not for whatever her financial situation was actually live indoors in a traditional housing. So it's now a thing, where they're creating parking lots, where people can rent space in a parking lot and live in their cars. So that's the part of it. 

Kathy, I want to talk about your book, because we're using a lot of the what you would call I think the old language in terms of talking about poverty, if you can tell us some of the measures that you took in Injustice of Place, and what you think the new terminology should be the way we should look at?

Kathy Edin

Well, first, let me say that our other co author, Timothy Nelson, is also here. So Luke Shaefer’s, probably watching. So we're all here in one way or another. If you know anything about poverty, or studies of child poverty, the poverty wars are endless. How do we measure this, nobody can agree. And now when you try to change the official measure, you get really strange results like California becomes poor than Mississippi. We came up with those measures, many, many years ago in the 1960s, out of expediency, because we were launching a war on poverty. And since then, our nation's infrastructure has grown dramatically. 

So in our book, we propose a new way of measuring poverty, one that incorporates income based measures that are cyclical, they rise and fall with the economy, accumulative measures, namely health, because the experience of disadvantage gets under your skin and you may still be sick, or live a shorter life, even if you escape from poverty when you're older. And then, of course, structural measures which measure that level of opportunity in a place and if we rank every place in the nation using this multidimensional measure, we see that the child poverty map and this map are extraordinarily similar. What is making children hurt is a broad range of factors that are clustering in certain places that contain more of our most disadvantaged citizens and other places. And I really want to emphasize this place point. 

60% of Black Americans live in the south. And that clustering in the continent, tobacco belt, many of them are majority black communities. We see it in South Texas, 44% of Hispanic Americans live in the States along the border. And they're really hurting there. We see this among the poorest whites in the nation, which of course, are in Central America. And we see it in our Native nations. So these are deeper problems. In some ways the child poverty is the canary in the coal mine. And many times you can trace these same patterns back dozens of decades. Indeed, these are the same communities that gave the war on poverty its face. These are also the communities that generated most of America's wealth. They're also the places where there was a deeper level of human exploitation, and resource extraction than in any other place in the United States. We want to think about child poverty in all of these ways. But I think we're going to still have that same map. 

The second thing is that we suggest in our book a language change, because place profoundly determines how kids do in the life course, where they grew up, and they don't choose where they grew up. And so we introduced the term disadvantage, because it implies an injustice, it's a moral term. It suggests that children are being held back unfairly. So I guess two things that we offer is this idea of really looking at a child poverty in a more multi dimensional way. And in doing so, to really understand how it is regionally patterned. And second, could we escape the blame trap by inserting a term that more accurately describes what is going on, and that is disadvantage rather than poverty. This notion that people or children are being held back unfairly, because of the places they grew up not because of their own decisions, not because of their behavior, not because of the quality of the health care in a place, but because of the neighborhoods and communities they grew up in.

Carol Jenkins  

Well, it's a wonderful book. And we've interviewed Kathy and Luke and Timothy, and that's on the next Invisible Americans podcasts that will be up on Thursday. Zach, I've been reading some of the conversation that you and David Brady have been having about this. I mean, because as we talked about the way the child tax credit is given, often the children who needed the most don't get it at all, even the expanded version was wonderful. But because there wasn't the work requirement, and poor children could actually benefit. And it was given monthly, because that's my theory, give cash. It's a solution. Ask few questions, give as much gas as you have, and let mothers and fathers raise their children, but you in a dialogue with David talked about the hardship that falls upon children who are impoverished in the very earliest of their lives. And I know that David Brady has said, you'll live a shorter life because of that. So talk to us a little bit about that. I know that that's deep in your heart about the unfairness of that.

Zachary Parolin

Thanks. So, there's a couple of ways that we can think about the long run costs of being exposed to poverty, say, at birth or early in your childhood. We have a term we often use in our world called intergenerational persistence of poverty, or if you grow up poor, what's your likelihood of also being poor as an adult in the US, and with some colleagues we've been doing some work to understand, if you grew up poor in the US, not only what is your likelihood of being poor in adulthood, but how does that compare to other high income countries? We have data for Germany, we have data for Denmark, we have data for the United Kingdom and more. And we can evaluate this question and we find empirically that growing up poor in the US is so much more costly than even growing up poor in say, the UK or Canada. 

Growing up poor in the US is more strongly manifesting and not being able to go and get a decent job or get a university degree. It’s associated with stronger health challenges and adolescents than in other countries. And these are not just long term costs for the individuals affected, but long term costs for our society as well. And there's ways we can think about it. There's the moral question, which I think is the first thing that comes to mind. How unfair is it that just being born into the wrong place, or to the wrong family should lead to all these disparate outcomes. If you want to approach it from a purely rational economists point of view, we can do that too. And say that this is extraordinary costly, due to the income taxes that these people aren't going to pay as high as they would, if they were had better opportunities than not the additional money off the spin on this, this and this. 

So regardless of whether you want to view it from a moral lens, or a purely rational economic economists lens, they're wonderful justifications for investing our nation's resources into ending child poverty, one, but also eradicating poverty among the youngest children in this country. And one more point, if I may on this, we can't again talk about this without noting the racial differences and exposure to child poverty as well. So shown in some of our work that black children in the US are exposed to about four times the rate of poverty throughout their childhoods, relative to white individuals. And so if we want to talk about why the average, let's say black 30 year old has greater likelihood of poverty than the average white 30 year old, we don't need to go to family structure, we don't need to go to a number of other indicators that get brought up a lot these days, we can look at how their economic situation as far back as childhood, and think of the situation that our state, our country, put them in when they were born and follow the path that leads to the disparate outcomes we see in adulthood. 

Carol Jenkins  

Interestingly too, Dr. Harnett, at Harvard, I believe, has looked at the data of a group of young black boys studying their brains. And apparently, the research shows absolute physical change in the structure of the brain in those areas that may give them complications later, learning, et cetera. So the good news is apparently it can be remediated to some extent, but poverty and racism is not just an abstract thing. It's a physical harm to two children. 

Janet Gornick

Can I make a plug for public universities? I do just want to say that this is absolutely correct. And there's been some devastating research in recent years about the lifelong effects of early child poverty among children. And I don't doubt that at all. It's very persuasive. I was on a panel some years ago with James Heckman, a well known economist, a conservative economist, I think it's fair to say Nobel laureate, who, nevertheless was very important in arguing for the importance of investing right in preschool as Zach sort of hinting, partly for instrumental reasons. And on the panel, I started to make the case for public university. I mean, I haven't been a CUNY professor for 30 years. And he basically said, if he's listening, I hope I'm quoting you properly. He said, it's too late. At that point. It's way too late. And in fact, public funds for universities should be redirected towards children. 

Well, I do want to say it's not too late because one thing we've learned in recent years has come from this very interesting research on social mobility based on colleges. Raj Chetty has done this and many others, they created the social mobility index. Raj Chetty, being able to link tax data with university data, scored every single college in the entire United States on this index, and that was the percentage of young people who came from the bottom fifth of income who ended up as adults in the top fifth of earnings. Six of the top 10 schools were CUNY colleges, Yes? Public education, amply funded public education matters enormously. It is not too late. It's an obscenity to give up on people because they're past the age of six. And I think that's really something we need to understand, funding for university education has been decimated in recent years, another place where we differ enormously from most European countries.

Carol Jenkins  

I want to thank my esteemed panelists for being just phenomenal. Thanks to you all here and for all of you all out there watching as well and to the CUNY Grad Center. Thanks for this opportunity to talk about the future of our country and what child poverty is doing to it. Thanks so much. 

The Invisible Americans theme by Bridget St. John

Dr. Kathryn Edin

Director, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing; William Church Osborn Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University; PI, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study; Co-Director, Joint Degree Program in Social Policy

Edin is one of the nation’s leading poverty researchers, working in the domains of welfare and low-wage work, family life, and neighborhood contexts, through direct, in-depth observations of the lives of low-income populations. A qualitative and mixed-method researcher, she has taken on key mysteries about the urban poor that have not been fully answered by quantitative work: How do single mothers possibly survive on welfare? Why don’t more go to work? Why do they end up as single mothers in the first place? Where are the fathers and why do they disengage from their children’s lives? How have the lives of the single mothers changed as a result of welfare reform? The hallmark of her research is her direct, in-depth observations of the lives of low-income women, men, and children.

Edin has authored 8 books and some 60 journal articles. $2 a Day: The Art of Living on Virtually Nothing in America, co-authored with Luke Shaefer, was met with wide critical acclaim. It was included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015, cited as “essential reporting about the rise in destitute families.” Her most recent book, The Injustice of Place: The Legacy of Poverty in America, will be published in August 2023.

Edin is a Trustee of the Russell Sage Foundation, was a founding member of the MacArthur Foundation-funded Network on Housing and Families with Young Children and was a past member of the MacArthur Network on the Family and the Economy.  In 2014, she was elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences. She was elected to the National Academy of Social Insurance in 2017 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2019.

Edin received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from North Park University and a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. She has previously taught at Rutgers University, Northwestern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and Johns Hopkins University.

Janet Gornick

Professor of Political Science and Sociology

Janet Gornick is a distinguished academic, holding a Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard University. She currently serves as a Professor of Political Science and Sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. With an extensive academic journey, Gornick earned her B.A. in psychology and social relations (1980) and an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School (1987). From September 2006 to August 2016, Gornick directed the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), a cross-national data archive and research center. Since2016, she has been the Director of the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality, holding the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Distinguished Chair in Socio-Economic Inequality since its establishment in2021. Gornick's research focuses on comparative social welfare policies' impact on gender disparities in the labor market and income inequality. She is the co-author or co-editor of four influential books, including "Families That Work" (Russell Sage Foundation, 2003) and "Income Inequality"(Stanford University Press, 2013). In addition to her academic contributions, Gornick served as a guest editor for notable publications, such as a special double issue of the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis (2006-2007) and a volume of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science(2022).  Her work is regularly featured in popular venues like The American Prospect, Dissent, and Challenge Magazine. Gornick's research has received significant support from prestigious sponsors, including the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Science Foundation (NSF),and the World Bank. She actively contributes to various advisory and editorial boards, showcasing her commitment to advancing economic and social policy research.

Zachary Parolin

Assistant Professor of Social Policy at Bocconi University in Milan and a Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy

Zachary Parolin is currently an Assistant Professor of Social Policy at Bocconi University in Milan and a Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Poverty and Social Policy. At Bocconi, he leads the ExpPov Poverty and Inequality Research Lab, supported by an ERC Starting Grant. Having earned his Ph.D. in socio-economics from the University of Antwerp in 2018, his research primarily revolves around the measurement and determinants of poverty and social inequality in high-income countries.

Zachary's impactful work has been featured in prominent journals, including Nature Human Behaviour, American Sociological Review, AEA: Papers & Proceedings, Journal of Policy Analysis & Management, and Demography. Beyond academic circles, his research has reached a broader audience and garnered attention in major media outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, The Atlantic, CNN, and even in a U.S. presidential debate.

In his notable book, "Poverty in the Pandemic: Policy Lessons from COVID-19" (Russell Sage Foundation, 2023), Zachary Parolin delves into the intricacies of poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. The book explores the impact of poverty on the consequences of the pandemic, the role of government income support, lessons for measuring and conceptualizing poverty, and policy insights for improving economic well-being beyond the pandemic. Through comprehensive analysis, the book offers valuable takeaways for shaping future efforts to enhance the economic opportunities of households.



Regina S. Baker

Associate Professor

Regina S. Baker, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH).She joined UNC-CH in July 2023, having previously served as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.


Regina completed her Ph.D.in sociology from Duke University in 2015. She pursued her undergraduatestudies at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, where she double-majored inSociology and Mercer's Program in Leadership and Community Service with a SocialWork concentration. Regina continued her graduate training at the University ofGeorgia (UGA) School of Social Work, focusing on Community Empowerment andProgram Development. Her journey led her to the Department of Sociology at DukeUniversity, where she received fellowships from prestigious organizations,including the American Sociological Association, the Ford Foundation, andDuke's Center for Child and Family Policy.


As a scholar andsociologist with training in both sociology and social work, Dr. Baker'sresearch seeks to understand the factors that create, maintain, and shapesocioeconomic conditions and disparities across people, places, and time. Herwork intersects various areas, including inequality, stratification, family,race, gender, political sociology, historical sociology, social demography,policy, and health.


Key Research Areas:

●      Poverty andsocioeconomic inequality, especially among children and families.

●      The link betweenhistorical institutions and contemporary conditions, such as racial inequality.

●      The politics ofpower, examining factors like unions and policies in the distribution ofresources across places.


Dr. Baker has publishedextensively in peer-reviewed outlets, including the American Journal ofSociology, American Sociological Review, Journal of Marriage and Family, SocialForces, Social Problems, ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and SocialScience, and Population Research and Policy Review. She has presented her workto both national and international audiences and has received research fundingfrom prestigious organizations such as the American Sociological Association,Ford Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, National Science Foundation, andNational Institute of Health.


Born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, with parents from low-country South Carolina, Dr. Baker views the American South as a salient and useful site for sociological inquiry. Her research often focuses on the South, providing a valuable context for examining pressing social problems such as persistent poverty and racial inequality.