By Zach Schalk
March 21, 2011 4:41 PM
There has been a great deal of reporting done on how the Great Recession has affected the working class in our country. The visible problem of high unemployment—and the general stubbornness of the jobs market—has drawn most of the attention of the press and politicians. One of the great underreported stories of the past few years, however, has been the economic downturn’s affect on our country’s youth.
CBS’s “60 Minutes” recently explored the issue,once again proving its worth as one of the few remaining bastions of high quality long form reporting on the major broadcast networks. (The CBS News web site for “60 Minutes” also has valuable video extras that didn’t make it to final broadcast, but are still worth watching.) Cameras followed reporter Scott Pelley to Florida, where he interviewed children and families in a heartbreaking story that should motivate politicians around the country to tackle this issue. While focusing mainly on Florida for the story, one of the states hit hardest by the crisis, Pelley also provides some national perspective:
The government considers a family of four to be impoverished if they take in less than $22,000 a year. Based on that standard, and government projections of unemployment, it is estimated the poverty rate for kids in this country will soon hit 25 percent. Those children would be the largest American generation to be raised in hard times since the Great Depression.
It’s impossible to tell how this wave of homelessness and poverty will effect the current generation of young kids in our country right now, but it isn’t hard to tell that it is unlikely to be positive. Despite the efforts being taken by the Florida schools mentioned in the “60 Minutes” story to keep kids in school and ease the burden of homelessness and poverty, the reality is that these kids are going to suffer during key stages of their development and likely remain behind the kids who were lucky enough to avoid the worst of the economic downturn for the rest of their academic—and possibly professional—lives. Until the economy fully recovers, and serious actions are taken by our political system to address these problems head on, many of our nation’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens will continue to pay the price.
The question of just how to address these issues may not receive as much attention as they warrant—with the public and media distracted by talks of budget deficits and the like—but there are certainly innovative ideas being introduced that might provide some solutions.
For instance, education reform offers some avenues for improving the lot of underprivileged kids. James Heckman, an economist from the University of Chicago, recently released a study showing that achievement gaps that exist across most spectrums in our education system seem become crystalized by the age of three. As Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum points out, these results exist despite ever more expensive efforts to improve primary and secondary education, with little results:
Intensive, early interventions, by contrast, genuinely seem to work. They aren't cheap, and they aren't easy. And they don't necessarily boost IQ scores or get kids into Harvard. But they produce children who learn better, develop critical life skills, have fewer problems in childhood and adolescence, commit fewer crimes, earn more money, and just generally live happier, stabler, more productive lives. If we spent $50 billion less on K-12 education—in both public and private money—and instead spent $50 billion more on early intervention programs, we'd almost certainly get a way bigger bang for the buck.
Most of the public debate on school reform may currently revolve around teacher unions and standardized tests, but a healthy debate in early childhood education might be more beneficial, and does appear to be underway. Or perhaps we could examine extracurricular programs—like mentoring or tutoring initiatives—that have been proven to have a positive effect on kids’ lives.
We often talk on this blog about the kids who get caught up in the system, stuck in the trap of recidivism and a society that can be unforgiving even of the youngest offenders. But it’s important not to get so focused on the juvenile justice system that we loose sight of the steps that could and should be taken to prevent a kid from getting stuck in that system in the first place. Especially at times like this, when the number of impoverished youth in our country is climbing to astounding numbers, it’s important to take the long view of a problem instead of just searching for short term solutions.