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Journal Issue: Children and Poverty Volume 7 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1997

Children and Poverty: Analysis and Recommendations
Eugene M. Lewit Donna L. Terman Richard E. Behrman


The problems of poverty in the United States have proven to be persistent and difficult to solve. This article has focused on policies that have the potential to ameliorate, but not necessarily eliminate, the problems of poverty for a large number of children in the United States. Most of the recommendations encompass actions that would likely prove beneficial in the short- as well as the long run. Where children are involved, it is hard to overestimate the value of short-run solutions. Five years is a long time in the development of a young child.

More could be done over a longer time horizon for poor children and their parents, and to address the conditions that lead to child poverty. For example, single-parenthood and declining wages for poorly educated adults, key factors in the growth in child poverty in recent years, have been hard problems to solve. Nonetheless, policies to reduce childbearing among single young women and to upgrade the job skills of working-age adults might reverse or, at least, slow the upward trend in pretransfer poverty. Similarly, programs to improve parenting skills and the home environment, boost the quality of child care and schools, and assure safe environments would benefit poor (as well as nonpoor) children. Comprehensive community initiatives, as described by Stagner and Duran in this journal issue, have the potential to improve circumstances across a set of conditions for both children and adults. The challenge is that it is easier to stipulate desirable goals than to design, implement, evaluate, finance, and sustain effective programs.

Although there may be some truth to the old adage that “the poor will always be with us,” the evidence suggests that the problems of poor children can be made tractable. It will be necessary to move steadily ahead but also to take time to evaluate progress and modify the course as warranted by the evidence. In the face of fiscal constraints, it may be necessary to set priorities. The article by Janet Currie in this journal issue describes how the criteria of efficiency, investment, incentives, and equity, built on in this article, can be used to choose among programs. In addition, it may be possible to improve some programs, such as housing, without a substantial increase in expenditures.

Prioritization according to the focus of current public attention may also be a reasonable strategy. This would suggest a focus on subsidized child care and expanded health insurance to support welfare reform and attention to strengthening the safety net. Finally, expectations should be kept realistic, if not modest, particularly if only a limited child poverty policy agenda can be attempted. Observation of the current political scene suggests that distrust in government and the feeling that nothing works are reactions to unrealistic expectations created by the overselling of previous programs by their promoters and an overemphasis on their shortcomings by those who advocate change.44