You have asked me to reflect on the achievements and disappointments of recent decades with regard to child poverty in our country, on lessons learned, and on what we need to do going forward.
It is impossible to understand child poverty trends without placing them in a context of what has happened to the American economy and to the distribution of income and wealth. Except for the last half of the 1990s, the economic history of the past four decades has been one of near‐stagnation for people with jobs that pay below the median wage in the country ‐‐ the entire bottom half, if you will. Deindustrialization ‐‐ the flight of jobs abroad and the replacement of many jobs by automation – has hurt millions. Good paying factory jobs have been replaced (fortunately, new jobs did come along) by much lower paying service jobs. Half the jobs in the country pay less than $30,000 a year, and a quarter pay less than the poverty line for a family of four. Large numbers of children have grown up to get jobs that pay less than what their parents earned. Our economy did grow, but the increased income went almost entirely to people at the top of the income ladder. To cite just one stunning statistic, the top 1 percent took in 9 percent of personal income in 1976 and 23.5 percent in 2007. Understanding this framework is vital to understanding why we have not made more progress in reducing poverty over the past 40 years, as well as the larger situation of all lower‐income families and individuals. It is all far more rooted in the fact of low wage work and the ever‐growing gap between rich and poor than we typically say out loud.