High percentage of children living in poverty is good or bad?

While driving up here to Naples, Maine for some seaplane training I listened to a lecture on political theory by Dennis Dalton, a professor at Barnard.  One interesting point was that Aristotle did not approve of voting except by middle-class or richer people.  His theory was that a poor person is likely to be illiterate and that, without having much property, won’t have any stake in stability.  Thus if Aristotle were remaking Iraq only perhaps 10 percent of the population would be entitled to vote.  In the U.S. maybe 80 percent of us would get to vote (though of course only 40-some percent bother).

Dalton talked about how the U.S. illustrates all of the ills of Capitalism predicted by Karl Marx.  In particular Dalton cited the percentage of children living in poverty here in the U.S. (“living in poverty” means in a family whose income is less than the Federal Poverty Level, a number determined by trying to figure out what the minimum necessary income is for a normal American life).

If the quantity of children in the U.S. were fixed it seems obvious that the higher the percentage of kids living in poverty the worse the situation.  But the quantity of children is not fixed.  People decide to have an extra child based on their perception of how easy it will be to take care of an extra child.  Perhaps a high percentage of children living in poverty means that poor people feel comfortable with (a) the  level of government support to be expected for that child (e.g., Medicaid, AFDC), and (b) the ultimate career prospects for that child once grown up.

What would stop a Reagan-style optimist from saying “look at all the children that our poor people are having, confident that their future will be bright” and citing that as an example of what a fantastic country this is for a poor family?

14 thoughts on “High percentage of children living in poverty is good or bad?

  1. Phil,

    I think your premise is plausible, especially considering that free birth control, abortions & adoption are all relatively accessible to the poor as alternatives to raising their own biological offspring. Although you only mildly allude to it, it is somewhat common to assert that some recipients of “welfare” benefits may actually be using additional children to “game the system”, which would seem to be a bad thing.

    In truth, both positions seem to be oversimplifications of the issue. For many people, regardless of socio-economic status, large families are part of a religious or moral ideology. Along with that goes the similar self-imposed, cross-status ideological limits on birth control, abortion and potentially adoption.

    A number of alternative (and possibly more controversial) hypotheses may be equally plausable. Here are a couple. I DO NOT SUBSCRIBE TO THESE VIEWS:

    1) An individuals socio-economic status is a product of their own apathy. This apathy likely extends to their family planning inclinations and abilities. This results in a spiral effect that suggests that poor people are more likely to have more children than their upper/middle-class counterparts, and therefore, there are more kids living in poverty.

    2) One’s ability to generate offspring is only limited by one’s biological ability to combine the necessary ingredients. It is not limited by law or financial status. In some ways, it may be the only thing that the impoverished can control and therefore is appealing on those grounds alone.

    3) Many people seem to hyper-romanticize the experience of childrearing. Some may use it as a way to manipulate a relationship with an adult partner. It may “save the relationship”.

    There are all kinds of nutty things that might explain the numbers. I don’t think, though, that any one of the ideas presented so far accounts for all/most of the instances. If anything, it is probably a product of a little of each.

  2. If your premise that optimism causes high birth rates is correct, people in 160 3rd world shitholes must be feeling even more optimistic than Americans. I’m telling you, prosperity in Niger is just around the corner. The email scam business must be really smokin’.

  3. Actually the reality is that we, via the IRS, are paying poor people to have kids and penalizing rich people who have kids via the earned income tax credit and sliding scale deductions. If you assume some kind of correlation of wealth and IQ…

    Also did Dalton take into his calculations the many illegal immigrants who have many many children? They may be poor here, but are better off than where they came from.

  4. Philip, speculation on how great it is to be poor in the USA is pretty pedestrian stuff.

  5. It is pretty easy to take a 21st century middle class view of things and think that the only pressures to producing offspring are expectations of income and itchy naughty bits.

    It has been explained to me by people that lived in 19th century US and 20th century Thrd World situations that there are two driving reasons to have many children.

    1. High mortality rates and the requirement produce many offspring to ensure that a viable amount reach adulthood.

    2. Elderly care was entirely dependant on having adult offspring to care for the elderly parents.

    These stragegies may be pretty deeply embeded in the human psyche. Given economic difficulty and a ready supply of food this stragegy may be all that people (conciously or not) can depend on.

    Of course, education is the key (that and plenty of contraceptives). The long-term key this this education is to lift the children out of poverty and educate them to life strategies that do not involve five or more children.

  6. A doctor in my town constantly comes across young people (ages 18-19) who aren’t working and are thinking about raising a family. I don’t think economics come into the equation for this folks somehow. Unless they could beat the averages and use the additional welfare payments that come with a baby and still be ahead.

  7. I agree with Chui. I would even like to take it one step further: the financial ability to provide for a kid is a consideration _only among the richer_. They deem education important so they have to have the money for private schools, university, extracurricular activities, you name it.
    Also I believe for some poorer people having a kid is a way of “keeping busy”. When you’re busy, you’re not thinking about your depressing circumstances. And like we all know, (young) children sure keep you busy if you can’t afford a babysitter/nanny/au-pair…

  8. The world population will exceed 10 billion by 2020 with most of those 4 billion growth coming in places that aren’t so optimistic. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in poor countries, and it isn’t economic optimism that drives procreation. 14-15 year old girls with babies don’t have and don’t count dollars. This is a hormones, education, and cultural problem. While better economics often means better education, it takes time for social and cultural changes to come on the heels of poverty reduction. But corrupt and ineffective govt usually stops economic change from reaching these people. Kofi Annan and the UN minions seem quite happy with the corrupt status quo, judging by their actions, not their rhetoric. So expect more third world optimism!

  9. Perhaps you have it the nail on the head with regard to the Hispanic vote being more attracted to the Republican party than ever before.

  10. Sorry Mark, your 10 billion projection is bogus. Ain’t gonna happen but, it is a nice round scary number so, it probably has it’s uses.

  11. http://esa.un.org/unpp/
    These are 2002 conservative data with projections of 7.1 to 8.5B for 2020. I’ve seen 2004 estimates that show 10B is attainable by 2020 because of even higher fertility and lower mortality in India, Africa, Mexico and China.

  12. “What would stop a Reagan-style optimist from saying ‘look at all the children that our poor people are having, confident that their future will be bright’ and citing that as an example of what a fantastic country this is for a poor family?”

    You might have the wrong end of the question.

    One could also ask:
    Why do people – when they climb out of poverty – suddenly lose confidence in the future, and STOP procreating furiously?

    Why are yuppies so alarmed by the costs of child-raising that they limit their progeny to one or two? (Or none?)

  13. Mark, I went to the population website you linked to and they gave world population estimates for 2020 of from 7.159 B to 7.913 B. Throwing around a figure of 10 B when your own sources show a much lower figure doesn’t seem very responsible.

  14. I would like to add some perspective on the issue.
    It is however far from pretty, so be warned…

    The issue raised is treated in the context of the USA. There are countries where the infrastucture is not as reliable, if it exists at all.

    1) weak law-enforcement. Well if you cannot make it worthwhile for someone to actually do it, why would they. And if anyone would they wouldn’t be able to do what it takes for lack of underlying infrastructure…

    2) weak infrastructure in terms of education. Also for economic reasons, and lack of infrastructure…
    If one is say an educator who is say coerced into coruption there is no adequate law-enforcement, not to mention renumeration to make it the less desirable way to go…

    Anyway the above is just background setup.

    What I have seen is children begging.
    What I have seen is mutilated children begging.
    What I have heard only, is people getting children and then mutilating them, for a child beggar brings in more than an adult ,and a mutilated child beggar brings in more than a healthy child.

    Now it may be the case that such “parents” belong in jail, death-row, what not, BUT see lack of adequate law-enforcement above.

    Sorry to bring such matters up but this is supposedly the same planet… I mean counting the additional dollars of child support where there is such a thing is replaced by reckoning the additional renumeration even where there is no governmental infrastructure for it. It is very easy for things to get real ugly…

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