This month school resumes for many kids. I remember spending those bittersweet late summer days gathering school supplies and clothes. My family couldn’t afford luxury items, but we always had what we needed.
Many of my classmates fared very differently. I was regularly asked for paper, pencils and lunch money by kids for whom these essentials were luxuries. The kids from the poorer neighborhoods struggled through a myriad of obstacles that effectively guaranteed academic failure. They came to school hungry, they were teased about their clothes or hygiene, they didn’t have books they needed. One friend lived in a homeless shelter with her mother briefly, so preoccupied by things like transportation and safety that she was unable to keep up with schoolwork.
In this country, 43 percent of children live below or near poverty. Over half of these kids have one parent working full time. They just don’t make enough money. A person working full time making the minimum wage earns a mere $15,080 a year before taxes. If that worker supports any children, they grow up poor. In fact, according to the nonpartisan N.C. Justice Center, the living income standard for one adult with one child is $35,710 a year.
Poverty’s oppressive effect on children renders it nearly impossible for them to thrive and move up the economic ladder. Multiple studies show that being poor adversely affects children’s academic performance. More alarming is a newer finding that poverty causes stunted gray-matter development in children’s brains, negatively affecting their test-taking skills.
Being poor harms children’s health in other ways. It has a deleterious effect on birth weight, infant mortality, language development, and pediatric chronic illness and injuries. These additional challenges impoverished kids face make it much more likely that they will later be unemployed, require financial assistance and have their own children at a very young age. Ultimately, the resultant burden to society is great. Child poverty has been estimated to cost $500 billion per year.
In America, we have the added shame of gross levels of economic inequality. Were we all uniformly poor, at least we would each enjoy a roughly fair shot at success. Not so. In this country, the top 20 percent has more than 84 percent of the wealth, and the bottom 40 percent has a mere 0.3 percent. Societies with higher levels of economic inequality have higher rates of violence, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, mental illness, many diseases and lower life expectancy. This disparity isn’t good for anyone, but especially not kids. As the economic gap grows, so does the academic achievement gap.
How we expect these youngsters to overcome the odds against them is unclear. There are anecdotes of children prevailing over adversity and achieving great things, but these are rare. Much more likely is that a child will wind up trapped in the generational cycle of poverty. It is a cruel oversimplification to hold that hard work pays off in this country. The facts show that the American dream of upward mobilization has become more of a mirage.
To help poor kids, we need to reduce poverty. This requires an actual transfer of wealth, and the least controversial way to achieve this should be by paying fair wages to working people. Workers who make higher wages are healthier, better parents with healthier, more successful children. Raising the minimum wage is not only fair, it is fiscally prudent to avert the later costs of supporting poor kids who could not become productive adults. The benefits of a more equitable society extend far beyond those enjoyed by vulnerable children. Closing the wage gap would reduce violence, improve everyone’s health and foster a more harmonious society for us all to enjoy.
It’s time to raise the minimum wage.
Aparna Jonnal is an emergency physician who lives in Hillsborough.